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Elgar's Enigma

Review by Ivy Wigmore 

On October 16, the PEI Symphony Orchestra ushered in their 2016/2017 season with “Elgar’s Enigma,” under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. This season, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of our beloved hometown orchestra, opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” reflecting on two poems by Goethe.

One of the greatest pleasures, one of the biggest thrills of PEISO concerts is the presentation of new original works, in this case, Harry Stafylakis’ “Arc of Horizon.” Stafylakis is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, a former metal musician from Montreal now based in New York. He creates contemporary classical music informed by his background in progressive metal and traditional Greek folk music. “Arc of Horizon” is a very personal work for the composer, the central problem and motivation for which, he says, was the conflict between his musical past and present.

The piece was commissioned by the Lake George Music Festival. Lake George, NY , half-way between Montreal and NYC, has always been a landmark for Stafylakis, signaling “departure from one place and imminent arrival at another.” The composer says that the transition always “evokes tangled and conflicting emotions of aspiration, longing, regret, fear and nostalgia.” All of which are made manifest in Arc of Horizon, a dynamic and compelling work. The New York Times described the composer’s “Brittle Fracture” as “dreamy but rhythmic” and Arc of Horizon could be similarly described. The performance was the Canadian premiere of Arc of Horizon, and it was simply spectacular.

Another great pleasure: Seeing a new generation of musicians rise up to take their places. Connie Yun is this year’s winner of the Suzanne Brenton award, given each year to a promising student. The award itself is made possible through the financial gift of a former PEISO cellist who only began to play at the age of 60. In contrast, Yun is 16 and has been playing violin for a decade, winning many awards and prizes for both violin and piano. For her star turn in this concert, Yun tackled Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, a piece often chosen to demonstrate virtuosity because it is fiendishly demanding. I’m happy to report that virtuosity was well demonstrated. Yun has been performing as an apprentice with the PEISO, so we may expect to hear more from her.

So much music! And that was only the first half. After intermission came the title piece, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, dedicated by the composer “to my friends pictured within.” Each of the fourteen variations is a brief musical sketch depicting someone known to the composer and one approach to solving the enigma of the title, a mystery that has never been identified. It’s unlikely that any of us in the audience could hazard a guess as to who Elgar’s friends were but Maestro Shapiro suggested we might be able to find resemblances to individuals within our own circles. That was an interesting exercise. The friends ran the gamut: playful, romantic, capricious, bellicose, whimsical, melancholy…oh yes, people can be like that.

Elgar himself was a violinist before he was a composer, and it was the Enigma Variations that brought him critical acclaim and success at the age of 42. Elgar was also one of the first major composers to make gramophone recordings of their music. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to listen to great music at home or work. But for my money? It just does not compare to the live performance, hearing the music as it is brought to life by the musicians, ringing throughout the performance space.

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