For those weary of the cold and ice, the Brown Theater was a respite for shovel-worn backs on Saturday evening. Jorge Mester, very aware of the light crowd, was grateful for the “intrepid” audience and musicians in attendance. Perhaps as intrepid was his choice, and command, of three contrasting works: William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma.”
Aaron Copland is largely credited for creating the “American” sound, much to the exclusion of his contemporaries like Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and William Schuman. Saturday evening’s performance was a reminder of Schuman’s qualities as a craftsman and an artist, and that his New England Triptych is as perfectly American as Copland’s ballet scores or the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man. Mester, who recorded some of Schuman’s music during the First Edition days of the orchestra, was at home in this score.
Schuman pays homage to one of the earliest American composers in his New England Triptych, based on hymns of the revolutionary era composer (and tanner) William Billings. The jaunty first movement was finely articulate, bouncing through Schuman’s abrupt rhythmic shifts. The second movement felt ragged and out of sync, but was redeemed by a blistering third movement that earned a few hearty yelps from the crowd. It’s rare for the timpani to take the first bow after the maestro, but Jim Rago earned it with his sharp and commanding playing. His appreciation for the applause was gracious and nonchalant.
Guest soloist Julian Schwarz believes in an introspective approach to Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. It’s a work that can easily be raucous — Schwarz opted for the melancholic. This is still a work of immense power, and Schwarz’s playing was equally so, but Saturday’s performance was less about the soloist and more about the music. This inward approach worked, mostly. Its only weakness was felt in the first movement through an overly square tempo.
Principal horn Jon Gustely, the only brass instrument in the concerto, gets what amounts to a sub-concerto. Shostakovich was generous, giving the horn melodic lines similar the solo cello and, in some cases, just as prominent. Gustely’s color was warm and complementary to Schwarz, particularly in the gut-wrenching slow movement. The cadenza that follows, a usual break in the orchestral action that gives the soloist (through dazzling virtuosity) some alone time with the audience, is really a five-minute soliloquy. Schwarz once again showed us his understanding of the music with confidence and took a sensitive, patient pace. The final movement was captivating, and while not technically flawless, showed more of Schwarz’s musicality. His on-stage demeanor was especially warm and humble, and further proven when he joined his fellow cellists for Elgar’s Enigma Variations after intermission. It’s extremely rare for a guest soloist to play with the hosting orchestra after they’ve played a concerto (he must have been exhausted).
Edward Elgar purposely encoded a secret in his Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma,” that still have us chasing for meaning and explanation. Thankfully, the music stands on its own, and ultimately provides a touching portrait of Elgar’s personal life through musical portrayals of his friends. The orchestra shifted nimbly between each character study, capturing the playfulness, tenderness or energy of Elgar’s loved ones. Fast string passages in the second variation were problematic and sloppy. Long, lingering phrases were always inviting, with especially lovely solo moments from principals Jack Griffin (viola), Nicholas Finch (cello) and Andrea Levine (clarinet), in order of appearance.
Nimrod, the ninth and most well-known variation, is expected to be the crowning achievement. It builds from a very soft, string chorale to a full orchestra statement of the same, and the Louisville Orchestra brass unleashed every ounce of sound, carrying the orchestra upward as Nimrod reached its summit. The last variation, and Elgar’s self-portrait, reprises a similar exuberance and gave the orchestra one final burst of life.
Daniel Gilliam is the program director for Classical 90.5 WUOL, part of Louisville Public Media.