Jon Robertson conducts Redlands Symphony in Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations

02/15/16 • by Betty Tyler • The Redlands Daily Facts

Jon Robertson conducted one of his favorite pieces of music Saturday night in his next-to-the-last concert as music director of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra.

That favorite was Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations — and especially “Nimrod,” the ninth of the 14 variations.

In his preconcert remarks, Robertson said he thinks the “Nimrod” variation is the most beautiful music ever written and said it’s difficult for him to get through it without a tear in his eye.

Robertson’s eyes may have been dimmed by a tear or two Saturday night, but the Redlands Symphony Orchestra’s performance opened the audience’s eyes and ears to not only the grand, emotionally rich sound of the “Nimrod” variation, but also to the bouquet of moods in the other variations, from humorous and blustery to delicate and graceful.

English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) put all those moods and more into his 1899 “Enigma” Variations because he wrote the variations as musical portraits of close friends — and of himself and his wife, according to James Keays’ notes in the Redlands Symphony’s program.

The program notes included the identities and brief descriptions of the people portrayed in the variations. I indulged myself and glanced at the sentence or two about each person as his or her variation began, so it was easy to hear country squire William M. Baker blustering and slamming doors in Variation IV and to hear Dora Penny’s slight stutter in Variation X.

And — take note, University of Redlands Bulldogs — I could imagine Hereford Cathedral organist George Robinson Sinclair’s bulldog Dan in Variation XI.

The “Nimrod” variation, according to the program notes, portrays Elgar’s friend August Jaeger. Elgar said “Nimrod” was a memory of “a long summer evening talk, when my friend grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially of his slow movements.”

It is grand music indeed, slow and glorious. A cellist friend who was not at Saturday’s concert told me later that the “Nimrod” variation is “one of those pieces that holds my heart.” I can’t think of a better way to describe it.

Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations alone would have made a satisfying concert, but wait — there was more music Saturday night in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel.

The concert opened with “Der Freischuetz” Overture by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), one of those shorter pieces that balance longer works in orchestra concerts.

This 1821 opera overture may be shorter than a full-blown symphony or concerto, but it’s not short on musical interest and drama. According to James Keays’ program notes, von Weber’s opera “Der Freischuetz” (“The Free-Shooter”) helped establish a German romantic opera style in the early 1800s and had a major influence on Wagner.

Robertson said the chorale-like horn quartet in the overture is one of its most famous passages. My first memory of that chorale goes back to when I was a child and heard it as a hymn tune. I don’t know if it’s widely used as a hymn, but it was sung in the church I grew up in.

But whether the horn chorale is a hymn or depicts the hunter of “Der Freischuetz,” it’s music you’ll be glad you heard.

Robertson may have said the “Enigma” Variations is one of his favorite pieces, but he also said Saturday night — as he has said many times — that Beethoven is his favorite composer.

So it was appropriate that the unknown element of Saturday’s concert — unknown, that is, when the season’s music was selected before last fall — turned out to be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” concerto.

The to-be-announced piece of the Redlands Symphony’s season is always the piece to be performed by the winner of the University of Redlands concerto competition.

This year’s winner was pianist Sophie Tait, who is working toward a Master of Music degree in piano performance, studying with Louanne Long.

Tait, who received her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Redlands in 2014, is also Long’s assistant, accompanies the University Choir and works with many instrumentalists and singers at the university.

She has received awards including the LeHigh Endowed Piano Scholarship and the Presser Scholar Award.

In his preconcert remarks, Robertson said Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto is a magnificent and powerful concerto, requiring a lot of strength and talent from the soloist.

Tait had strength and flying fingers to spare, and she made the piano sing with a clear, rich tone in this well-known concerto that, even after 200 years, is still a powerful piece of music.

Robertson will conduct one more Beethoven work, the Leonore Overture No. 3, on the final concert of his 33-year tenure as music director of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra.

Mark your calendar for 8 p.m. April 16 in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel.



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