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Welsh conductor Grant Llewellyn chose four English composers for a concert given by the Brevard Sinfonia at the Brevard Music Festival. Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra since 2004, Llewellyn is an articulate orator and one of the most interesting of all conductors when he speaks from the podium, as he did on this occasion for all but the opening piece. The major work on the second half of the program was Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, Op. 36, while before intermission we heard pieces by three composers whose careers overlapped Elgar’s: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius and George Butterworth.
I found it limiting that Llewellyn had chosen four composers who all lived at the same time. He missed an opportunity to demonstrate the wide range of talented English composers between the time of Elgar (born 1857) and the present. Perhaps we know Benjamin Britten and William Walton well enough, but wouldn’t we have benefitted from exposure to works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave, Malcolm Arnold, Elizabeth Maconchy, Oliver Knussen or Mark-Anthony Turnage? Instead, we had a program that started vigorously with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ spirited Overture to The Wasps, and then dwelt languorously on Frederick Delius’ “In a Summer Garden” before proceeding to George Butterworth’s quiet Great War elegy “A Shropshire Lad.” Both the Delius and the Butterworth end with chords that die away to silence, but for different reasons. Delius provides silence because the garden is so peaceful; Butterworth because the young lad has died in warfare. It struck me as an unfortunate sequence.
That said, there was nothing unfortunate about the fine playing of the student orchestra or the solo performances by many principal players. Concertmaster Maria Romero and English horn player Evelyn Sedlack had solo appearances in the pastoral middle section of the Vaughan Williams work. Principal flute Paul Gardner and principal oboe Jocelyn Plant joined Sedlack as soloists in the Delius.
But the high point of the concert was Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. Both Llewellyn’s intelligent direction and the Brevard Sinfonia’s execution of his intent showed excellence. The fourteen variations “on an original theme” represent Elgar himself, his wife Alice and their friends. Some variations are brief, but several are lengthy and contain subtexts. The orchestra understood the frivolity of some and the serious nature of other variations. The brass section convinced me during Variation I that Alice was indeed the love of Elgar’s life, the woman who complemented the humanity of her husband. In Variation IV, the full orchestra presented the bombastic country squire who was Elgar’s neighbor. Variation IX is an extended and heartfelt Adagio that represents his dear friend August Jaeger and simultaneously is an apotheosis of Beethoven. This serious passage was followed by the light-hearted Variation X, in which the woodwind choir mimicked Dorabella’s giggle while principal viola Erin Rafferty provided a solo line. Principal cello Lavena Johanson played the solo in the Variation XII Andante. Variation XIII is the only variation where the subject has not been definitely identified. Elgar claimed that *** represented Lady Mary Lygon, then on a voyage to Australia, but others have suggested that it may represent his former fiancée Helen Weaver who had emigrated to New Zealand. (In either case, the quotation from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” is appropriate.) The final Variation XIV (Elgar himself) conveys that Elgar felt his own character, his very identity, was constructed out of his interactions with all these dear friends.
The Elgar work is a tour de force of understated British romanticism. Llewellyn’s detailed and skilful conducting, and his effective rehearsal technique, educed a fine performance from the young people of the orchestra. They swarmed off the stage following the concert, crowding the affable conductor, eager to interact with a mentor that they appreciated and obviously loved. He had brought into their lives an important piece of music, and they had nailed it.