The English composer Edward Elgar, who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote symphonies, myriad chamber works, concertos, songs, choral works and many marches, of which his “Pomp and Circumstance” pieces brought him international acclaim. The British royals even saw fit to honor him as “Sir Edward.” So, why the usually illustrious Journeys to Genius programmers at the Sarasota Orchestra chose to dismiss most of Elgar’s music and focus only on his “Enigma Variations” was something of an enigma in itself.
Until this performance, the orchestra’s Journeys to Genius performances have been unmitigated successes, drawing us — like Leonard Bernstein’s video musical lectures — into a spellbinding web of the lives and works of composers. The programs also brought a new audience — younger and perkier — to the orchestra, while keeping those of us who have been dyed-in-the-wool music fans for a long time. But “Solving Elgar’s Enigma” last week fell far short of the triumphs of the past.
So, what was it about this program that was, well, enigmatic? For starters, the premise of this journey was flawed. Elgar was considerably more than his “Enigma Variations.”
Then there was the script, which was less than compelling. Jim Helsinger took on the role of storyteller, but the story he told was somewhat lackluster, and, to make matters worse, his microphone was so inept it was difficult to understand much of what he was saying. Patrick Sullivan made a dreary Sir Edward, and Diana Brune, as Alice Elgar, seemed to float on and off the stage without much character.
This was more the fault of the tedious script that was more ill-defined than fascinating and the stage direction (by David Chernault) that was fuzzy and blurred. Basically, this presentation lacked the focus and excitement of Journeys in the past.
Worst was the sound system that cut out, drowned out or muffled the speakers, rendering them somewhat impotent in their various non-descript roles. This has been a problem before at the Sarasota Opera House, and, with the small screens on either side of the stage purporting to show slides of the various people who influenced Elgar, this Journey was more of an audio-and-visual blur than the captivating concerts to which we’re accustomed.
Christopher Confessore, the writer and conductor of this program, is a former resident of Sarasota and was known to us as a talented youngster who won the (then known as) Florida West Coast Symphony’s Young Artists Concerto Competition. He’s participated in the Sarasota Music Festival and even served as the orchestra’s associate conductor from 1992 to 2000 and as education director in the early ’90s. Currently, he’s music director of the Brevard Symphony and principal Pops conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
Confessore may have underestimated the sophistication of Sarasota audiences. What may work elsewhere can come across in this town as academic and bookish rather than exciting and elucidating.
Leaving the enigma of Elgar’s “Enigma” aside, the second section of this program, as always, focused on a performance of the work itself. And, here again, we were disappointed.
Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” have always sparkled for me. From the opening segment with its Mahlerian harmonies to the gorgeous and celebrated “Nimrod” variation, it’s always been a fun, exhilarating and, at times, electrifying musical romp. So it pains me to say this performance left me bored and considerably disappointed.
The Sarasota Orchestra is an ensemble that I brag about to my friends and colleagues. This was not one of its sterling moments. Intonation in the strings was shaky, and the tension and excitement we’ve grown to expect were lacking. It is early in the season, and they may not yet have melded into the cohesive ensemble we know they are. I can only hope that future Journeys are presented to us with the genius they’ve shown in the past.
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