Kindred Spirits Orchestra– Enigma Variations

Last night I heard Kindred Spirits Orchestra playing at the Richmond Hill Centre, led by their conductor Kristian Alexander with piano soloist Naomi Wong.

From outside it looks nice enough..

I forget the beauty of this space, until I enter.

The lobby of the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Jack Diamond

My friend Brian and I were sitting 30-40 feet away, roughly eye level with the Steinway piano, with most of the audience in front of us. The RH Centre website says their capacity is 631, with 360 at the orchestra level.

The acoustic in this little jewel of a hall enabled us to easily hear Wong playing the Chopin piano concerto #2, her notes soaring over the sonorities of the orchestra arrayed behind her on the stage.

Even if we were to sit this close to a soloist downstairs in a big space such as Roy Thomson Hall, we’d be hearing the sound dispersed into a space that can hold 2600, over four times the size of RH Centre. When a soloist undertakes a concerto in the big space, they have to ostentatiously take the stage with their playing (like an actor on a big stage) even in the softer passages. Wong had the luxury of this intimate space, every note clear on the instrument. And it was really lovely to be able to see her fingers as though she were performing across the living room from us. Wong doesn’t have the preening ego that some pianists develop, very humble about her playing as conductor Alexander gently encouraged her to take her solo bows.

The KSO opened the program with Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kijé Suite”. I recall we played the “troika” theme in my high-school band many years ago in an arrangement (as I quietly remarked to Brian, wondering if he remembered it from when we went to that school long ago). One of the chief joys of the piece is the way the themes gets handed among different sections, creating a genuine sense of community as each of us got a turn at the melody. It’s a tuneful composition calling for lots of solos from the wind players and intriguing orchestral colours, at times overwhelming in its enthusiasm.

Alexander led the KSO at a bold pace. Again, how wonderful to hear every note so clearly in this tiny hall. The trade-off one makes when choosing between a concert from a community orchestra like KSO and the premiere ensembles such as the Toronto Symphony is evident at such moments. TSO might be better, but in this space we’re hearing and seeing everything with perfect clarity, the players lovingly surrounded by family, friends plus the supporters in Richmond Hill and the surrounding area.

After the interval we heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the big piece that was the orchestra’s focus. While the concerto is also substantial, for that piece the soloist is the obvious star, with the orchestra in a supporting role. After the interval that shifted.

KSO Conductor Kristian Alexander

For a young group such as the KSO –comprised of a mix of young players and professionals—the question of repertoire looms large. One can imagine that Alexander and his team carefully aim for works that will entertain the audience, while not over-reaching by selecting music beyond the capabilities of the ensemble. Alexander functions as both an interpreter and a teacher, leading the musicians while helping in their development.

But what is the enigma, you may ask. I believe it’s a mistake to think of Elgar’s piece as a puzzle to be solved, however many musicologists may dig into the score in search of the answer. I saw a quote from Elgar saying that a “dark saying must be left unguessed.” Where have we heard such things? Indeed, given the timing of the composition, in 1898, I’m reminded of Elgar’s contemporary Claude Debussy, whose Nocturnes were composed at this time, and whose symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande was composed in that decade.

Elgar said “So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas – eg Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse and Les sept Princesses – the chief character is never on the stage.” There it is. Maeterlinck’s The Intruder premiered in 1891, while Maeterlinck’s Pelléas had its premiere with Debussy in attendance in 1893. The mistake I’ve often seen is to think of “symbolist” meaning that the symbol is to be decoded and explained, when the essence of the symbolist aesthetic is a reticence, a refusal to be explicit, a tendency to be obscure, vague, shadowy. The symbolist movement can be understood as a response to the growing influence of science in modern life, the reductive tendencies of thinkers seeking to be explicit. The symbolist enjoys mystery as Elgar likely enjoyed the ambiguities created for the listener in his Enigma Variations. Whether or not Elgar should be thought of as a symbolist, he’s only explicit when he tells us that we should not seek clarity in our understanding of his enigma. I’m inclined to listen to that suggestion.

Perhaps the over-riding idea or theme behind the piece is Elgar himself, as this work is in some respect a self-portrait. If we understand it as a series of portraits of his friends, the last variation is Elgar himself, containing within it the music of his chief influences.

Alexander led a stirring performance, building slowly but inexorably in the “Nimrod” variation: the one that’s so well known, that we sometimes hear at funerals or on Remembrance Day. At the conclusion (concerts still a relative novelty for most of us in March 2022) our ovation attempted to return the favour, in an eruption of joyful gratitude.

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