Reviews and Articles written by William Noll
February 2, 2012
Southwest Florida Symphony extracts 'Enigma' puzzle

Naples Daily News

February 2, 2012

by William Nolls

Famous tunes. Handel had the Hallelujah chorus. Beethoven had the "Ode to Joy." Brahms had a lullaby. And Sir Edward Elgar had "Pomp and Circumstance." What?

Yes; it's a march. What kind of march? Like John Phillip Sousa's Stars and Stripes? No. Like a most favorite march, as in THE most favorite march of all time, played at every commencement ceremony around the world.

Did Sir Elgar write anything else? Yes, a puzzle. A what? You heard me.

And, indeed, I heard the puzzle on Friday evening performed by Maestro Michael Hall and the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra for a full house at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Center in Fort Myers.

But first, confession time. This composition was not on my favorite list for many years. I just could not grasp its inner warmth and depth until about two decades ago when I was fortunate enough to hear a superbly crafted performance by David Zinman and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The balance, nuance and phrasing were totally seductive, and shed new light on this great work. And just to be sure, I attended all three performances.

Back at the Barbara B. Mann, the program opened with a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Overture to "The Wasps." The wasps are not the acronymic U.S. of A type. Rather this is incidental music written for a college production of Aristophanes' "The Wasps."

The orchestra buzzed around the bee-riffs with an appropriately elegant-sounding string tone. Vaughan Williams had been studying orchestration with Ravel around that time. Point taken.

The remainder of the first half was devoted to Maestro Hall's thoughtful and well-paced informance of the theme and subsequent 14 variations of Sir Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations." There were aids: an upright piano, three cameras, two jumbo screens, PowerPoint and the full orchestra.

The conductor used this time to explore the inner workings and personality traits of the theme itself and the individual stamp of each variation. Maestro Hall employed the orchestra in demonstrating Elgar's dog barks, door slamming, whistling, stammering, laughs, poignant expression, nobility and reverence. All of these traits, and more, represent characteristics of his relatives, friends and colleagues, presented as potential "composers" for each variation.

Who these characters are is not the puzzlement. History has unlocked that door with the very many clues that Sir Edward has left us, both musical and scribed. The true "enigma" is an overriding aura of there possibly being a much larger hidden secret. This still remains a wonder.

After intermission, the orchestra performed the second movement of Sir William Walton's 1928 Viola Concerto. The brilliant soloist was the 16 year-old winner of last season's Concerto Competition, Chloe Thominet. Unfortunately, the enormous orchestration did not balance with the soloist. Her terrific bow arm and accurate left-handed leaps were rather swallowed up in this "fasten your seat belt" ride of a Scherzo.

Finally, after all of these "Thames Themes" we were able to sit back and enjoy a smooth and uninterrupted performance of the "Enigma Variations." Well, almost.

The orchestra played well. The strings had a rather polished musical sheen. Although there was no mention in the program, Sae Chonabayashi, of the Jasper String Quartet, was the guest concertmistress for the evening. One can assume that she had something to do with the elegant string sound, especially in the soulful "Nimrod" variation.

Clarinet, cello, timpani and viola solos were especially pleasing and well-phrased. The brass section was warm and wonderfully British-sounding. Only the tricky chromatic second variation that depicts Elgar's friend plunking away at the piano suffered with some rough string inexactitude.

What became very annoying was the manner in which the three cameras were obviously "winging it" throughout the performance as flashes of orchestra members appeared on the jumbo screens - sometimes playing, sometimes not. I don't mind innovative technology at a performance.

But it should have been turned off for the performance if there were no definitive camera cues actually being followed.

Maestro Hall brought the performance to a noble, majestic and powerful conclusion in the final variation, which depicts Sir Edward Elgar as a masterful musical craftsman whose compositions remain as a legacy to the Romantic 19th century era.

Not such a puzzlement, after all.

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