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GVYO and Guests
Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra
Yariv Aloni, conductor
Reynolds High School Band
David Flello, conductor
University Centre Auditorium
March 1, 2015
By Deryk Barker
On November 1, 1898, Dora Penny spent the day with the Elgars, attending a rehearsal, taking lunch, attending the concert and then accompanying the Elgars home to tea. At lunch, she wrote in her book Memories of a Variation, Elgar was in high spirits: "You wait till we get home. Japes!"
Having arrived at Forli, the house he was currently renting, Elgar "fled upstairs to his study, two steps at a time...'Come and listen to this', and he played me a very odd tune - it was the theme of the Variations - then went on to play sketches, and in some cases completed numbers, of the Variations themselves...then I turned over and had a shock. No.X, 'Dorabella'...'Well, how do you like that, hey?' I murmured something about its being charming and rather like a butterfly, but I could think of nothing sensible to say; my mind was in such a whirl of pleasure, pride, and almost shame that he should have written anything so lovely about me. The voice from the fire-place [Alice Elgar's'] came to my rescue: 'Isn't it beautiful, dear Dora? I do hope you like it'".
It was the first performance of Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36 on 19 June 1899 which established Elgar as the first great English composer since the death of Purcell two centuries earlier, although the version we have today is ninety-six bars longer than what was first heard: the extension to the finale was made at the suggest of A.E. Jaeger, the "Nimrod" of variation IX, an optional organ part was also added (of which more later).
That first performance also showed that Elgar was one of history's greatest orchestrators; consequently the Variations pose considerable technical difficulties for the orchestra.
It was with an exceptional performance of the "Enigma" Variations that Yariv Aloni and the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra closed Sunday's marvellous concert, one in which any technical difficulties were simply shrugged aside in thirty minutes of glorious music making.
If my notebook contains less detail than usual, it was largely because I was so engrossed in the performance. The fact that the lights seemed dimmer than normal and that consequently I could not see clearly to write was also a factor, but a far lesser one.
The music was beautifully played, from the excellent strings and gorgeous winds of the opening theme to the sparkling exuberance of the final variation, E.D.U, a self-portrait ("Edoo" - from Edward - was Alice Elgar's pet name for her husband). Along the way all sections of the orchestra distinguished themselves and there were simply too many splendid solos for me to mention.
There are arguably three variations which are key to the work: the first, C.A.E is a portrait of Alice Elgar - the playing of this in Elgar's first recording, made shortly after her death, is simply heartbreaking - and here it was simply delectable; Nimrod, a portrait of Augustus Jaeger, whose encouragement had helped Elgar overcome depression when he was determined to give up music, is one of the great slow movements. Aloni directed a smoothly-flowing performance, exceptionally well shaped and paced. It moved me to tears. The finale, with its extra bars, was rumbustious and extravert; yes I missed the organ part (the presence of the instrument itself looming over the orchestra seemed almost to emphasise its absence), but it is optional and the remainder of the performance more than made up for it.
In the first half of the programme the orchestra was joined for two pieces by the Reynolds School Band.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was, of course, one of the great folksong collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His English Folk Song Suite is but one product of the time he spent touring England, notebook in hand. (In fact, the word "English" in the title was added by Gordon Jacob when he made the full orchestral arrangement - RVW's Folk Song Suite was originally composed for military band.)
The stage was filled almost to bursting with the combined ensemble and, while a purist might argue that there were in fact too many brass and wind instruments, non-purists among us were prepared to overlook that and enjoy the crispness and youthful exuberance of the playing.
The English Folk Song Suite may not be profound music, but my word it is fun! Especially when played like this.
David Flello took the baton for Robert Longfield's Fantasia on "Kingsfold", whose hymn-tune theme turned out to be the same melody known as "Dives and Lazarus" in England, "Gilderoy" in Scotland and "The Star of the County Down" in Ireland. It is Child Ballad No.56 and the melody for countless folk songs, such as "The Murder of Maria Martin" in Norfolk; Vaughan Williams used five "variants" of the theme in his string orchestra work from 1939; it also appears in the bass line of the opening movement of his Folk Song Suite. It was also Vaughan Williams who included it in the English Hymnal of 1906 under the name of "Kingsfold", after the Sussex village where he first heard the melody.
Flello produced a marvellously controlled crescendo at the opening of the work building to the introduction of the melody. The whole piece was commendably concise and very well played and directed.
The concert opened with von Suppé's overture to his operetta Light Calvary (one of four dozen - who knew?). Doubtless the trumpet tune was familiar to anyone over a "certain" age (guilty) and the presence of that tune must surely explain the fact that the work is still - however marginally - in the repertoire, along with the overtures to Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna and Poet and Peasant (all three have famously featured in cartoons) because the rest of it was totally unmemorable.
Still, the performance was very good, with excellent fanfares at the beginning, some very good zigeuner strings and trumpets only too willing to grasp their moment in the sun and make the most of it.
Another concert for which the word "enjoyable" hardly seems sufficient.