REVIEW: “Music of Great Britain”

Note: Updated 11/3 to correct spelling of names.

I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or cry at Sunday’s Music of Great Britain concert of the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra—thankfully, though, for reasons all positive.  And with those emotions came some eye-opening revelations.

Maestro James Fellenbaum began the concert with two works by Malcolm Arnold, Four Scottish Dances and the Concerto for Two Violins and Strings, op. 77.  Although Arnold was quite prolific, he is generally known to the public through short, light-hearted pieces that show up on pops programs, and for his film scores, such as Bridge on the River Kwai and Hobson’s Choice, both for director David Lean.  It would not surprise me, though, to see Arnold’s reputation grow in the years ahead as ensembles discover more of his “serious” works.

Four Scottish Dances falls into the category of light, extremely humorous works that use snippets of rather obvious inspirations: bagpipes, a staggering drunk, local dances, and impressions of the unique hills and vales of the Scottish countryside.  Step-forward solos from the flute (Heather Nagy), oboe (Bonnie Farr), piccolo (Micah Layne), and horn (Vincent Morreale) were very nicely played.  Emily Wuchner’s bassoon did an excellent portrayal of the drunk.

If Four Scottish Dances was humorous, if not bawdy, the next work, the Concerto for Two Violins and Strings, was a departure in the opposite direction. Commissioned by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Arnold wrote the piece in 1962 in memory of his two brothers who died within months of each other in 1961.  Add to that the breakup of Arnold’s marriage, and one can understand the inherent sadness that permeates the work, perhaps even to the point of being unrelentingly depressing. Structurally, the solo lines are a study in brotherly contrapuntal leading and following; the violin soloists, faculty members Mark Zelmanovich and Miroslav Hristov, assumed these roles so musically and impressively that I wondered how many psycho-analysts in the audience were rubbing their hands with glee.  Arnold’s string orchestra background seemed to be little more than that, although there were moments that seemed intended to assuage the grief.

Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36 (“Enigma Variations”)  is a work I have heard dozens of times in my lifetime of performance-going and one that I unabashedly look forward to it each time the opportunity presents.  But remarkably, this performance provided me with some new perspectives on the work.  Obviously, Maestro Fellenbaum has great confidence in his wonderful orchestra, for I was struck on this occasion by how much of a deceptive test the work can be—particularly for a university ensemble of students of varying musical maturities.  Examples: simple exposed interval leaps can reveal intonation issues; the intrinsic “British” richness of Elgar’s balance between winds and strings can draw unwanted attention to a particular section; and, there is the trap, in my opinion, of believing that Elgar British-ness requires a languid tempo.  Although the opening tempo seemed unduly slow to me,  Fellenbaum and orchestra seemed to be aware of these pitfalls and had taken them into account. The Finale, Variation XIV, with the added benefit of the hall’s pipe organ performed by John Brock, was fully responsible for a chill or two up the spine.

I should note that the orchestra’s violin section has never sounded better in my history of UT Orchestra concerts.  This is no small achievement in an academic ensemble where the turnover is regular and inevitable.

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