The Peninsula Symphony began its season last weekend with a concert featuring two famous masterworks written for love and friendship. I heard Saturday’s performance at Flint Center in Cupertino.
The two works were Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A Minor, written as a present for his pianist wife, Clara, and Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” The individual variations are portraits of Elgar himself, his wife and a dozen of their friends, formed of musical depictions of their conversation, their music-making or, in one case, the friend’s dog falling into a stream.
Music director Mitchell Sardou Klein led the variations as if they were a suite of separate movements, connecting them only in a few places, such as in the harmonic drop at the end of the “W.N.” movement that makes the succeeding “Nimrod” so poignant. This individualistic interpretation was enhanced by a screen at the side of the stage, on which was projected, sequentially, photos of the subjects with thumbnail write-ups of their characters.
A good performance of the “Enigma” was within this non-professional orchestra’s competence. Each portrait was strikingly distinct, which is what Elgar wanted. The most challenging parts, but also the most successful, were the dolce viola and cello melodies in “Ysobel” and “B.G.N.” The finale, in which Elgar depicts himself, made a good dramatic close.
The orchestra was equally fine, light and perky, in the Schumann Piano Concerto. The soloist was a slightly-built young man named Conrad Tao, 22, deeply focused on his music. Especially in the Intermezzo movement, he played quietly, almost hesitantly, exchanging phrases with the orchestra like a pair of chamber music players. It made for an intimate portrait of Robert and Clara’s bond and their mutual respect.
Tao demonstrated another mode of playing with his dazzling encore, “Caténaires” by the uncompromising modernist Elliott Carter. It was determinedly extroverted: loud, fast and brittle. Tao found a rough but definite flow in the jagged rhythms of this unlikely bonbon.
Two shorter works filled out the program. The concert’s “symphonic surprise” was Elgar’s brief “Civic Fanfare” for Hereford, England, one of his few late-period works, which concludes with a cheerful arrangement of “God Save the King.” The evening began with the orchestra’s new assistant conductor, Chad Goodman, leading “Early Light” by Carolyn Bremer. This is the first entry in the orchestra’s commitment to play a work by a living American female composer at each concert this season.
Bremer, who directs the conservatory school at Long Beach State, is best-known for this one short work. It was inspired by hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before a baseball game — thus the title, which is of course a quote from the anthem’s lyrics — but any melodic inspiration is thoroughly transmogrified. It’s a brightly lit piece, full of bouncy triplets, featuring plenty of winds and brass, in the spirit of upbeat American nationalism by Aaron Copland or Henry Cowell. Bremer’s music sounds eager for the baseball game to start, so too bad the World Series had just ended. Wait till next year.
The Peninsula Symphony’s next program, to be held Jan. 20-21 in the less usual venues of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City and the Heritage Theatre in Campbell, will be a jazz-oriented program featuring local favorites the St. Michael Trio as soloists. The concert’s female composer will be the well-known and popular Gwyneth Walker. The evening will also feature works by Claude Bolling and Astor Piazzolla, plus popular music ranging from W.C. Handy to Stevie Wonder.