The Spokane Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara, will perform three 19th century works from France, England and Germany this weekend in a program titled “Elgar’s Enigma Variations.”
Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9 by Hector Berlioz, Edward Elgar’s best-known large orchestral work, Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Op. 36, and Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 by Johannes Brahms are orchestral showpieces that feature all the instrumental families.
The two larger works, the Brahms and the Elgar, have something in common, Nakahara wrote in an email.
“The two large scale works on this program share a common bond of friendship,” Nakahara said. “Although people sometimes think we musicians are ‘loners,’ we are always positively affected by friends and colleagues with whom we work.”
In writing his violin concerto Brahms collaborated with his good friend Joseph Joachim, a virtuoso violinist, and dedicated the piece in his honor.
Together, they wrote a piece of music requiring a technique that frightened many soloists. And when Brahms’s Violin Concerto premiered in 1879, initial reactions were not entirely positive.
The concerto is cast in the three standard movements. The lengthy first movement has brilliant writing for orchestra with a stunning cadenza for the soloist. The slow second movement incorporates a melodic theme of longing by the oboe which is then embellished by the solo violin. The rondo finale imitates Gypsy musicians who performed in the cafés of central Europe. This movement also demands dazzling passage work and cadenza for the soloist.
In Elgar’s case, he turned to his friends as inspiration.
Elgar was, to many, a very model of the proper, conservative artist of the Edwardian era. Most people are familiar with his concert march “Pomp and Circumstance” – a ubiquitous musical presence at commencement ceremonies. Elgar, a self-taught musician, was the first English composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to achieve world fame.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations is a set of 14 character portrayals of musicians, colleagues and family; he dedicated to it “my friends pictured within.” The enigma has to do with a “secret” idea that is present in the work but never actually heard. Scholars have tried for decades to solve this riddle that Elgar, thankfully, never shared with anyone. It remains a musical magical mystery tour de force.
Nakahara said he doesn’t intend to get into the riddle. “It’s my third time conducting this piece, and every time I end up spending a lot of time researching and thinking about his riddle.” He added that while it’s fascinating to consider, people don’t need to understand the riddle to appreciate the music.
Certainly the best-known and most powerful variation is Number IX (“Nimrod”), inspired by Elgar’s friend Augustus Jaeger. The piece is performed every year in England on Remembrance Sunday (second Sunday in November) to commemorate the end of World War I. This movement is for England what Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” is for America – solemn music for collective national mourning and reflection.
Guest artist Saeko Matsuyama began her studies at The Julliard School and went on to receive worldwide acclaim. She has garnered numerous honors, including: First Prize and Audience Prize at the 2004 Sendai International Music Competition, Second Prize at the 2003 Hannover International Violin Competition, and Fourth Prize in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition in 2005.
“I’ve never worked with Saeka Matsuyama before, but my opinion is that she is a wonderful artist who brings her own personal voice and point of view to whatever she performs,” Nakahara said.
“I am very much looking forward to our first collaboration. Also, she’s originally from Nishinomiya (Spokane’s Sister City) … so there is a bit of Spokane connection with her appearance.”
French master Berlioz (1803-1869) extracted two themes from his failed opera “Benvenuto Cellini” and from them fashioned the Roman Carnival Overture, which has become a staple in the symphonic repertoire. It is a favorite for orchestral players, especially the brass section.
This piece doesn’t share a theme with the Brahms and the Elgar, Nakahara noted, “but its brilliance and flash provide a nice contrast to the rest of the program.”
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