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UT Feature: De Waart a Welcome Guest

Guest conductor finds the humanity in Elgar with San Diego Symphony

This review was featured on the UT San Diego and written by James Chute. 

There’s no need to read about the rise and fall of the British Empire. 

All you need to do is listen to the “Nimrod” movement of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and you’ll get the idea.

There are few pieces with such a poignant combination of triumph and regret, certainty and resignation.

But this music was about much more than England in a moving performance by guest conductor Edo de Waart and the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center Friday.

The veteran British conductor Neville Marriner was scheduled to guest conduct this concert, but doctors ordered him not to travel. So de Waart, the distinguished former music director of the San Francisco Symphony and now music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, agreed to inherit a lineup that also included the very un-British Korngold Violin Concerto (with Russian violinist Alina Pogostkina) and Glinka’s Overture to “Russian and Ludmilla.”

While some interpreters treat the “Enigma Variations” as a period piece, with even Eric Bromberger’s consistently excellent program notes talking about how the work places us in late-Victorian England, de Waart had other ideas.

Rather than set the piece in some imaginary Victorian drawing room with Earl Grey tea and polite conversation, de Waart went beyond any surface nostalgia and connected with the work’s most human, universal aspects. That “Nimrod” movement wasn’t so much about the British as it was about us: what’s gained, what’s lost, the price paid and the debt owed.

De Waart took the orchestra there with an uncommonly direct, unaffected manner on the podium. He doesn’t dance, he doesn’t pose. He’s engaged every moment with some aspect of the music. And he’s a master at drawing out the music’s long, most fundamental line.

His involvement and interaction with the musicians put the orchestra on a heightened state of attention. When he repeatedly asked the musicians to play quietly, they were at a whisper. They also responded when he asked for a roar.

But it was the quiet moments that were the most telling, especially with the woodwinds, who have rarely played with such presence and cohesion. The brass also sounded with welcome clarity. The strings, like the rest of the orchestra, were polished and precise.

Except for Pogostkina’s somewhat unhinged playing in the concerto’s first movement (she found her footing in the second movement and caught fire in the brilliant third), the program was a huge success.

De Waart is welcome here anytime. 

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