John Chacona | Guest Reviewer
There are several enigmas associated with Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. Who is the cryptic dedicatee of Variation XIII, identified only by the cypher “***” in the score? Is the enigma a mysterious tune (“Happy Birthday”?) coded into the music? And is there an enigma at all, or was the work’s title Elgar’s hunting call to set future music lovers off on a wild goose chase, a cosmic joke swaddled in Victorian drollery?
To those mysteries, English-born conductor Andrew Constantine added another when he suggested in his podium remarks that at this performance, the coins customarily used in place of the timpanist’s usual sticks in Variation XIII “might be the very coins” Elgar employed more than a century ago.
“It’s a very convoluted story,” he said, tantalizingly before giving the downbeat.
It was a highly entertaining — and very British — piece of shtick and certainly of a piece with his crowd-pleaser of a program. Constantine opened his Amp-debut concert, with a lithe and well-played account of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” that nimbly avoided the coarse humor and cheap theatricality that this composer sometimes inspires. Not that it was dull. Constantine had a fine grasp of dynamics, and he got the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra from zero to 60 with astonishing speed. Roger Kaza managed the vertiginous horn melody flawlessly, and the winds were outstanding as they were to be all evening.
Mozart’s G Major Flute Concerto, K. 313, was next, another charmer for which Constantine pared down the strings to 8-8-6-5-3. His tempi were moderate, but the soloist, James Walker, seemed a bit uncomfortable. On Wednesday night, Walker, who is a former principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an in-demand studio player, fronted his jazz ensemble. As a friend who is a prominent jazz player told me at intermission, “It’s hard to go from playing jazz to playing classical music.” Mozart’s music doesn’t have the exhibitionistic virtuosity of Strauss’, for instance, but every line is exposed. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s not easy to play.
Elgar was the first significant English composer in many years, some might say, since Purcell. He can be seen as a kind of late 19th-century musical nationalist in the manner of Smetana in Bohemia or Grieg in Norway, and it is always instructive to hear a native conduct the music of such a figure.
There was no lack of affection in Constantine’s reading, but it was a very English sort of affection, genuine but not attention-seeking. The slow variations were tender without being mawkish (and in the conclusion to No. XII, a bit eerie, too), and the big moments were vigorous and cheerful. The touchstone of the piece is, of course, Variation IX, “Nimrod,” an affectionate and quite heartfelt portrait of Elgar’s friend August Jaeger. Here, Constantine’s gestures grew very big and flowing as he built the great tune from its prayerful beginning. It was not an enveloping American bear hug of an embrace, but rather a respectful gesture of mutual admiration, no less genuine for its gentlemanly decorum. And it felt exactly right, no mystery at all.
John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie-Times News.