Saturday, May 21, 2022

concert review: Oakland Symphony

I've never had a bigger, nor actually less welcome, surprise at a concert than the one B. and I got as we settled into our seats at the Paramount Theatre Friday evening, opened our programs, and discovered that the big work of the concert - Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time - had been canceled and replaced by Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Now, the Enigma Variations is a worthy piece, and I always enjoy hearing it, as indeed I did enjoy it last night. But I didn't fight my way through 90 minutes of heavy traffic to Oakland, and furthermore bring along B. who rarely goes out and can only be coaxed to a concert for choral masterworks, for an orchestral piece I hear all the time. Whereas A Child of Our Time is a rarely-performed choral monument I've heard live only once before.

It emerged from guest conductor Leonard Slatkin's talk before the piece that he realized it would not be possible to perform the Tippett at Monday's choral rehearsal when, due to Covid - both cases caught and fear of getting it - only a few of the chorus members showed up. That was Monday. According to Lisa of the Iron Tongue, nothing had been put on the website by Wednesday.

And they didn't inform ticket holders, like myself. I'm not on any Oakland Symphony mailing lists, because - as I've informed them every time they phone and ask me to subscribe - I can rarely get to a concert. But I bought these tickets six months ago - that's how much I was looking forward to this - and they were delivered by e-mail, so the Symphony knew how to contact me. As I wrote in Lisa's comments, changing a program item is something that happens, you can't complain about circumstances. But not informing the ticket holders ... that's unforgivable.

So we had the music on offer. The Enigma is a specialty of Slatkin's, which must be why he was able to get the orchestra to give such a good, hearty, and emotionally varied rendition of the work on four days' notice. But the most entertaining part was his prefatory remarks, in which he gave his solution as to the piece's enigma, the secret behind the main theme, a solution which, once known, can never be forgotten, so I'd best not tell it to you.*

As A Child of Our Time is quite sizable, I had been surprised that it had been tucked into the second half of the concert, preceded by a full first half. This outline fit the briefer Enigma Variations better.

The concert began with contemporary composer Cindy McTee's Circuits, a quick ear-popping moto perpetuo with an oompah base. It made a very odd contrast with the exceedingly somber rendition of Barber's Adagio for Strings which followed. But the circle was squared with the remaining first-half piece, Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain, generally a contemplative work, but which Slatkin injected with such vigor and hasty-pudding energy that the central fugal section sounded like a reprise of the McTee.

*Oh, very well. Slatkin discounts the notion of an unidentified other melody with which the main theme is in counterpoint, as it's impossible to prove one. Instead, building on the piece's form as the composer's personal view of his friends and himself, Slatkin observes that the theme is a series of four-note phrases, each with a different rhythm and emphasis, and theorizes that it goes "Edward ELgar, Ed-ward Elgar ..." I'm reminded of Robert Winter's theory that Dvorak's New World Symphony goes "Hi-a-wath-a, Hi-a-wath-a."

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