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August 2014
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CSO Principal talks Elgar and Muti

CSO Principal Cello John Sharp, Madrid, c. Todd Rosenberg

CSO Principal Cello John Sharp, Madrid, c. Todd Rosenberg

Sunday at 1:00 pm

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cello John Sharp plays the Elgar Cello Concerto with Riccardo Muti on the next Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcast.

Anyone who has seen Riccardo Muti catch air on the podium, might be hard-pressed to think of him as an old dog. Last spring, the youthful, now 73-year-old conductor demonstrated his willingness to learn new tricks: he led the CSO in his first-ever performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Cello John Sharp playing the Elgar Concerto with music director Riccardo Muti, c. Todd Rosenberg




For the soloist, the orchestra’s principal cello John Sharp, working so closely with the maestro only reinforced the conductor’s reputation for being thorough: “He’s certainly not a musician who listens to other peoples’ recordings, and sort of puts something together from that. He really studies it and responds to the music from a basis of being a good musician, great intelligence and experience and insight. In the end, I think it comes out quite individually.”

Musicians who work with Maestro Muti know not to expect fanciful or self-indulgent departures. According to Sharp, “He responds very carefully to what the composer writes in the score, which can be quite complicated in this piece because there are a lot of markings, a lot of changes of tempo, and expressive things, and it’s hard to put them all together to make sense. I think some performances, you have to sort of give one way or the other or maybe compromise or something. He seems very attuned to what’s there in the score and tries to respond to that.”



Edward Elgar, 1919

As for the piece, Sharp shares the opinion of many who see Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto as a lamentation for an earlier age. Indeed, letters reveal a composer distraught over the senseless destruction wrought by the First World War. The concerto followed the War in 1919. Two months after completing the piece, Elgar conducted the premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra – it was not a triumph.

According to Sharp, the War “meant huge changes in England and in Europe, and sort of the…end of an era. I think people about the same age as Elgar…had this sense of loss and sorrow for what once had been.”

Sharp talks about the hostile climate in which Elgar presented his concerto, “He also was…considered very old-fashioned. By that time Schoenberg had been writing; Pierrot lunaire had premiered – and all kinds of Stravinksy and things like that – so the world was turning modern.”

Months after the premiere, Elgar’s wife, Alice, died. Though Elgar lived another 14 years, he wrote little else after that.


The opening bars of the concerto in Elgar’s hand, 1919 (click to enlarge), c. Royal College of Music

After the premiere, Elgar’s Cello Concerto gradually became popular. It was recorded twice in the 1920s. Players like Paul Tortelier and Mstislav Rostropovich performed the piece; though it was the highly individualized playing of English cellist Jacqueline du Pré, in the famous 1965 recording, that caught the world’s attention.

Sharp praises du Pré, but cautions against the temptation to model a performance after hers: “…du Pré’s recording, I think, casts a long shadow over the piece. In a way it’s even hard to listen to other people after that. It was just a very intense and special sort of performance. She was very individual, and one shouldn’t really imitate those things…too much.” According to Sharp, it’s really essential to spend time with the score and find one’s own way.

John Sharp has served as principal cello of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since the 1986-1987 season. He was appointed to the post by Sir Georg Solti.


Jacqueline du Pré, age 20, rehearses the Elgar Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli. Over 40 years earlier, Barbirolli had played in the cello section with Elgar conducting the piece. c. David Farrell/EMI Classics

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