Symphony’s British evening evokes images of the Isles

Saturday night was chilly in San Luis Obispo, but maestro Michael Nowak led our Symphony through a warming evening of tuneful 19th-century music written by, or about, the British.

The concert offered a nicely matched pair: the well-known “Enigma Variations” by Edward Elgar, from 1899, and the 1881 “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra by the now-obscure Max Bruch, a German who lived for many years in Liverpool. David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, served as soloist in the Bruch.

The Elgar opened the program with a genial embrace of singing strings. The piece, while popular and soothing to listen to, certainly does have an enigmatic quality to it. We know Elgar wrote his theme and 14 variations in honor of specific people he knew, and he labeled each variation with that person’s initials or nickname. That enigma was solved when Elgar revealed the names in 1929. The composer also suggested, enigmatically, that “another and larger theme…is not played” during the piece, but is somehow understood to be present.

But the real enigma, for this listener, is why the overall structure of this piece works as well as it does, given the great shifts in mood and tempo from one variation to another and the sleight-of-hand with which Elgar conceals the main theme. Is there a “story” in the sense of an ordered, Aristotelian pattern here? Or, as in the second half of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, does pure serendipity link these bits of melody into a working counterfeit of coherence?

As I listened to the well-disciplined orchestra move through its sprightly paces, with the string section glowing in that 19th-century pastoral way, I was struck once again by how Nowak’s experience in the world of film soundtracks qualifies him to shoulder this enigma.

Each variation became a scene, or perhaps a cue for a scene, and that scene was the focus of musical and dramatic meaning. One could see, in one’s imagination, the green rolling hills of the British countryside, and hear scrubbed choirboys sing in the cadences of Wordsworth or Tennyson.

The high point of the evening’s first half was the ninth variation, a loving adagio subtitled “Nimrod” that unfolded like a fairy tale book illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Elgar’s percussive touches accented the aching melody, suggesting sunshine breaking through after a day’s wet English gloom.

Given Max Bruch’s status as a second-string composer, I had diminished expectations for the second half of the evening, but I was pleasantly surprised by David Kim’s crystalline tone on violin and the prominence of the harp, plucked expertly by Marcia Dickstein. The piece balances fast arpeggios from the soloist with “answers” from the orchestra, as though a man were singing up in the highlands accompanied by his own lonely echo. Kim’s big solo in the last movement was perfectly framed.

He and the orchestra capped off the evening with an arrangement of the Irish favorite, “Danny Boy.”

The concert was sponsored by Roy and Jane Gersten, Merikay Guhring, Peggy and Gerry Peterson and Joan Sargen.