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S.F. Symphony: The Rule of Spain and Britain

January 30, 2013

San Francisco Symphony

Britain and Spain Ruled a Single ConcertPersonal fascinations have led to many a masterpiece. Three of them were on display Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall as Charles Dutoit led the San Francisco Symphony in works by Maurice Ravel, Édouard-Victor-Antoine Lalo, and Edward Elgar.

As Susan Key pointed out in her preconcert lecture, a fascination for Spain began to affect many Frenchmen who turned away from all things German after their defeat by Prussia in 1871. An additional fascination for the skills of Spanish violinist virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate inspired Lalo to write his Symphonie espagnole concerto three years later. Some four decades on, the continuing affinity for France’s southern neighbor, reinforced by his birth only a few miles from the border, provoked Ravel to compose Rapsodie espagnole.

Both works are enlivened by numerous dance episodes, and Ravel’s astonishing gifts in orchestration ensure that at least his Espagnole will have a permanent place in the repertoire. Dutoit opened the concert with this classic and pressed all the right buttons on the Symphony’s superb instrument, especially in the Malagueña movement.

The Lalo that followed, while in no way matching Ravel’s inventiveness, offered melodiousness — and pyrotechnics for Canadian violinist James Ehnes. Numerous bravos erupted for his efforts at the conclusion, well-deserved for his nearly faultless execution and genuine musicality. Only a few unnecessary scrapes at the very start of the concerto marred a splendid rendition on his part.

Numerous bravos erupted for Ehnes’ efforts at the conclusion, well-deserved for his nearly faultless execution and genuine musicality.

After intermission came the meat of the program, the Enigma Variations. Its title refers to a “theme” Elgar wrote about that “goes over” the whole set of variations, “but is not played — so the Principal Theme never appears.” The theme that does appear is employed in 14 variations to describe characteristics of Elgar’s friends, indicated by initials on all but one of them. The Symphony’s program notes admirably provided pictures of all the variations’ subjects, including the supposed Lady Mary Lygon for the uninitialed 13th variation, “***Romanza.”

James EhnesThe mysteries of what the “unplayed” theme is, and whom the 13th variation portrays, have confounded Elgarians for more than a century. In the preconcert talk, Key stated that she found “convincing” Robert W. Padgett’s crusade promoting “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as a solution. The fact is, the two tunes played together in Padgett’s construction sound awkward and have a couple of absurd dissonances.

Among the dozens of available theories out there, I subscribe to Theodore Van Houten’s 1976 demonstration in Musical Quarterly. He proposes that the “larger” theme is patriotism and freedom, from the phrase in Thomas Arne’s “Rule Britannia” that mimics the up-and-down of the key first notes in the variations’ theme. Namely: “never never never shall be slaves.” After all, just as Elgar wrote, “the Principal theme ‘never’ appears,” three times!

As to the identity of the 13th variation subject, growing agreement has developed, since S.F. Symphony program annotator Michael Steinberg’s death, that an old sweetheart of Elgar’s, Helen Weaver, was the true subject of the movement, which describes a voyage to the “antipodes” (New Zealand or Australia). Future program notes should take this possibility into account.

Charles DutoitFar more mysterious than any of the extramusical problems with Elgar’s variations is why British conductors almost always seem to have the best handle on how to conduct it. Lausanne-born Dutoit, on the whole, did a fine job, especially in the faster second and seventh variations. As he proved earlier in the concert, he’s a master of managing dance movements: The balletic “Dorabella” Variation 10 was the best I’ve ever heard from anyone’s baton.

Dutoit was also a sensitive portrayer of the “***” variation, conjuring up a distant, dreamy atmosphere of longing. I wish, however, that principal timpanist David Herbert had used the coins specified by Elgar instead of the more usual bare sticks to mimic the sound of ship’s engines: Their tremulous rattle would have been even more muffled and ethereal. Moreover, if old British pennies are used, the goddess Britannia is on the back!

As Dutoit proved earlier in the concert, he’s a master of managing dance movements.

On the negative side, Dutoit took the first variation, a loving tribute to Elgar’s wife Alice, a bit too heavy-handedly. The middle section of this variation must float out of the room. Assistant principal cellist Amos Yang had a lovely solo to open the 12th variation, but Dutoit did not stir the rest of his section up to the sublime intensity required for this movement. Dutoit was well aware of the necessity for rubato in Elgar, and was effective in many of his slight tempo adjustments, but the huge climax that relies on just a handful of notes at the end of the famous Nimrod variation was not optimally graduated: The deceleration was uneven.

Finally, and most unfortunate for fans of this music, the optional part for organ was not included in the performance, robbing one of the most dramatic endings in all music of some of its possible force. I gazed at the windless pipes behind the stage with some of the same longing that Elgar probably expressed for his former love Helen in “***.”

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. 

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