Generosity or enlightened self-interest? The two are not mutually exclusive, as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey well knows. For the VSO’s annual Spring Festival—which continues this weekend, after a five-day break—the London-born conductor has assembled a program of glorious music mostly rooted in the English tradition, which also happens to reflect his own heritage. And for the fourth concert in the series—at the Orpheum on Sunday (April 30)—he’s presenting Edward Elgar’s symphonic masterwork, the Enigma Variations, alongside the same composer’s Piano Quintet.
The thinking, one presumes, is that hearing how Elgar worked in a chamber-music context will illuminate the riddle that is at the heart of the Enigma. Tovey doesn’t entirely disagree, but he has a slightly different take on the matter.
“Well, yes,” he says, checking in with the Straight from a car en route to Uppingham, England, where he’s working with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. “But there’s also the purely selfish thing: I actually really wanted to play the quintet with the people who I’m playing it with.
“It’s a deeply moving work,” Tovey continues. “And it’s a big work. It’s well over 30 minutes, and it’s full of all kinds of tributaries. In fact, it’s easily his best piece of chamber music—of, shall we say, salon music—and it fits me perfectly because of the role of the piano. So I wanted to find out what to put it with, and putting it with the Enigma seemed to be a very natural sort of idea.”
After navigating the soloist’s role in the Piano Quintet, Tovey will remain at the keyboard to present an exploration of the Enigma Variations’ musical structure and its hidden meaning.
“The idea is to show how it must have sounded when Elgar first played the Variations to his wife,” he explains. “At first, he just played fragments, as a joke. And so I think it will help people to enjoy some of the humour in the piece.”
The work’s title makes it obvious that Elgar is playing a game of charades with his 14 variations; each, the composer readily allowed, is a sonic portrait of a friend or musical accomplice. But many have speculated that there is some deeper structure behind the piece—that it’s an elaborate fantasy on some well-known but equally well-disguised tune, or that it somehow encodes Elgar’s philosophy of life.
Tovey leans toward the latter camp.
“I think that the enigma is probably the enigma of friendship and that everything else is a bit of a hoax trail, laid by Elgar to have fun at our expense,” he explains. “It’s possible to impose ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or several other tunes on it, but for me the idea of a unifying theme which is never played refers to friendship. But there are are no clues for that; it’s just my personal opinion.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Spring Festival continues at the Orpheum from Saturday to Monday (April 29 to May 1).