An “Enigma” Explored

Madison Symphony’s latest foray into “Beyond the Score” illuminates Elgar’s masterpiece


I’ve come to believe that some riddles don’t need to be solved, or perhaps more accurately, it’s more fun to keep searching than to actually discover the definitive answer. That thought certainly comes to mind when examining the Variations on an Original Theme, (“Enigma”) by Sir Edward Elgar. The variations are all miniature pictures of friends and his wife, filtered through one of the richest and most beautiful themes ever created for such a purpose. But there was no mystery as to the people illustrated; Elgar early on revealed some of the identities, and many of them were self-evident. But the composer did say that there was a larger theme—never heard in the work—which nevertheless runs “through and over” the entire composition. Candidates proposed have included everything from “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” to “Pop Goes the Weasel,” the major scale and “Auld Lang Syne.” Elgar dismissed them all out of hand—and I for one have come to think that that part of the enigma was pure fiction.

The fact that the Madison Symphony Orchestra, with the aid of the Chicago Symphony’s “Beyond the Score” format, failed to shed much light on that larger enigma was of no matter. One went to simply get a musical x-ray, as it were, of a familiar and beloved masterpiece, and thereby enjoy it all the more. This is after all the overriding conceit of the Beyond the Score series (which includes upwards of two or three dozen works now), and we have already experienced this delight twice earlier in Overture Hall with Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

For any readers not familiar with the Beyond the Score format, the first half of the concert consists of about an hour presentation with actors playing the roles of the composer and usually other people pertinent to the work at hand. There are also wonderful visuals projected on the big screen behind the orchestra. Along the way, Maestro DeMain and his mighty band provide excerpts which give us cogent glimpses of details that easily get overlooked in the sweep of a full performance. After intermission, we get to hear the whole work uninterrupted.

The special guests on hand included well-known local radio personality and author Norman Gilliland as narrator, and some folks from American Players Theater: James Ridge as Elgar, Kelsey Brennan in multiple female roles, mostly Elgar’s wife, and Brian Mani, in various roles of acquaintances of Elgar. We were also treated to MSO pianist Dan Lyons front and center, as some of the work and discussion centered on Elgar’s first work on the theme at the piano.

The actors were fine, and a wonderful synergy emerged between the fascinating visuals and the script. Clips of someone (presumable Elgar) hiking the Malvern hills, photographs of the many personalities so wittily depicted in the music intertwined with the by turns droll and insightful lines. The excerpts provided by the DeMain and the MSO soon constructed a comprehensive understanding of how this rich theme was so wonderfully manipulated. They also gave immediate notice of sounding at their most glorious post-Romantic best; if you want to hear even clearer evidence of Elgar’s musical kinship with his German contemporary, Richard Strauss, sample either of Elgar’s two sprawling symphonies, or his tone poem, Falstaff.

The second half did indeed provide as full-bodied a reading imaginable, and if this had been a “normal” concert, we would have had plenty of keen edification from J. Michael Allsen’s sterling-as-usual program notes. Particularly telling was the note on the famous “Nimrod” variation. Usually this mini-adagio of monolithic stature strikes us a face-value portrait of Elgar’s great mentor, August Jaeger. Allsen informs us that the gravitas in the music is a reflection of Elgar’s recollection of a conversation with Jaeger regarding the grandeur of Beethoven’s music.

One would be tempted to play scorecard with the many wonderful contributions from the MSO players, variation by variation. Let us summarize by noting the depth of the richness of the collective string sound, and the brass sounded as crisp as I can recall. As for individual contributions, we must make mention of the tenderly expressive solos from violist Christopher Dozoryst, cellist Karl Lavine, and clarinetist J.J. Koh.

Based on the evidence (not to mention the long standing ovation at the end of the concert), perhaps DeMain should consider another Elgar work down the road. It won’t happen next season though—but we should note that Sunday’s program book included an insert with dates, soloists and composers for the Maestro’s silver anniversary season. In light of Sunday’s event, perhaps the best news is that Beyond the Score will return again, January 20, 2019, with an examination of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. Ciao!

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