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The ‘Enigma’ of Edward Elgar at the MSO

Nov. 8, 2016
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Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (so titled because the composer never revealed his theme) is one of those recurring pieces that are constants over a lifetime for classical music lovers. Every time I hear it, it’s like revisiting a place I fell in love with years ago. Naturally, I discover new things in each performance of it and encounter different conductors and orchestras, and as a listener I’ve changed too, of course.

Guest conductor David Danzmayr led the Enigma Variations with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last Saturday evening. This excellent and evolved ensemble sounded terrific and sophisticated. Some highlights: the unity of the MSO brass at any dynamic level, the warmth of the strings, expressive playing of the woodwinds. Cellist Susan Babini and clarinetist Todd Levy created profound statements out of a few solo phrases. Dean Borghesani’s artful timpani playing is an underappreciated strength of the MSO.

Danzmayr was most persuasive in the energetic movements. He set up the famous and soulful “Nimrod” variation with care and inspired timing. However, it was ultimately the least persuasive movement, as it became too slow and exaggerated for my taste. I very much liked what I heard in the rest of the movements, however. (I’m not sure I could have followed all of Danzmayr’s dramatic conducting gestures and wondered what the players were thinking.)

Principal clarinetist Todd Levy was a superb soloist in British composer Gerald Finzi’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. Premiered in 1949, the music has a lovely, pastoral and decidedly British quality. The slow second movement is the best section of the piece—seeming to be about sad longing. Levy can create sound that seems to magically emerge from nowhere, making beautifully shaped phrases that captivate the ear with adept subtleties: a mark of a true artist.

I was not familiar with composer Vilém Tauský (1910-2004). He fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 and settled in England in 1940. Still a member of the Czech army-in-exile, he searched for survivors in the bombed ruins of Coventry Cathedral. This experience was inspiration for his elegiac Coventry: Meditation for String Orchestra, played with earnest grace.

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