As with Esa-Pekka Salonen who conducted last week, Sir Mark Elder is another on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s roster of regular guest conductors who has a gift for designing particularly inspired programs. Thursday’s night offering was a quintessentially British program in the first of his two-week residency.  A pair of modest works by Vaughan Williams prefaced Elgar’s epic First Symphony, the latter a seminal piece infrequently heard outside the UK.

Vaughan Williams wrote The Wasps to accompany a Cambridge performance of the Aristophanes play of the same title, in which Athenian attorneys are comically portrayed as wasps. The overture begins with a series of trills, evoking the buzzing of those rather unpleasant insects.  This gives way to a memorable, big-boned theme, gallantly played, creating an atmosphere far more English than Greek. While not a piece noted for its depth, it proved to be an effective and engaging curtain-raiser.

The Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” showed a much more contemplative side of the same composer. Vaughan Williams had a strong affinity for English folksong and assiduously collected them, as Bartók did in Hungary and Copland in America. Scored for strings and harp, the Five Variants present the titular folksong not in variations, but in a compendium of alternative versions strung together to form a cohesive whole.

The CSO strings were incredibly lush in the deeply melancholic opening statement of the theme, perhaps bringing to mind Barber’s Adagio for Strings, written just a few years earlier.  The third variant was marked by a searching dialogue between the harp and Robert Chen’s violin. John Sharp provided a lush cello solo in the final variant which began with the grandiosity of the full ensemble, only to end peaceful and plaintive.

These two works were merely a warmup for Elgar’s hour long First Symphony, which the CSO had not performed at Orchestra Hall in over three decades. Few have as natural an understanding for Elgar as Elder; it’s worth noting he is currently principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, the ensemble that premiered this work in 1908. What’s most striking is the confidence with which this self-assured composer approached his inaugural symphonic effort and in so doing, created a remarkably original language, eschewing influences of the German tradition as epitomized by Brahms.

The expansive opening movement introduced a nobilmente theme that defines the work – indeed this Edwardian nobility is the essence of Elgar. At times the theme overtly resounded throughout the whole orchestra, at other times it was reduced to a pizzicato bass line.  With the exception of bassoonist Keith Buncke, all principal winds were off that night – had this not been the case, I suspect there would have been even greater synergy in conquering this challenging writing. As a non-British listener, I find Elgar to be something of an acquired taste; at times to me it felt the piece meandered, lacking the structural cohesion to justify its extended length.

The scherzo provided mercurial contrast to the seriousness of the preceding, and slow movement followed attacca. Based on the same theme as the scherzo transformed, Elder elicited gorgeous playing in this heart of the symphony, bringing out its English wistfulness.  The nobilmente returned in the finale, along with an energetic march theme played with verve and swagger to bring the symphony to a triumphant close. Especially given that much of the CSO’s reputation lies in its mastery of the Austro-German repertoire, one couldn’t have asked for stronger advocacy, and a tip of the hat to Elder for reintroducing it to Chicago audiences.