Next month’s concert by the Conservatory Orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will feature the composer Edward Elgar. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto, while the program will begin with his orchestration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 537 fantasia and fugue in C minor for organ. This will be followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 165 solo motet “Exsultate, jubilate.”
The concerto soloist will be Yanghe Yu, who will be graduating this spring. This morning Yu was one of the students to be coached by Pamela Frank in the master class she gave in the SFCM Recital Hall. For this occasion Yu had prepared the second movement (Adagio) from Opus 61, making his portion of the master class a preview of sorts (bearing in mind the absence of “orchestral accompaniment”) for next month’s Conservatory Orchestra concert.
I used scare quotes in that last sentence because Elgar was such a master of orchestral resources (as his Bach orchestration demonstrates) that it would be unfair to say that he ever used the orchestra in an accompanying capacity. I was therefore pleased to hear Frank advise Yu to spend time studying the full score, rather than just his part and anything that may have been covered through a piano reduction. She also encouraged the pianist working with Yu to do everything in her power to sharpen his awareness of what the orchestra would be doing during the concert performance.
Frank also stressed the abundance of markings in the score concerned with both dynamics and tempo that Elgar provided to express how he felt the performance (by both soloist and orchestra) should be shaped. While this concerto is in the usual three movements, the overall structure is a massive one. The recording that Elgar himself made with Yehudi Menuhin lasts about 50 minutes, which is also the approximate duration of my recording of Colin Davis conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden with violinist Nikolaj Znaider. The first and third movements are about equal in duration with that middle Adagio only a few minutes shorter.
(I should insert the parenthetical observation that I only began to get comfortable listening to Elgar’s symphonies and concertos after I had built up a solid foundation to listening to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler!)
Slow movements can be particularly challenging. At a reduced pace it is often more difficult to sort out prolongations from the core material being performed; and this, in turn, can complicate the issue of identifying where the principal climax resides. The challenge is even greater for the soloist preparing this concerto, because there is at least one reading of the score that suggests that the major climax is taken by the orchestra, rather than the soloist. This is not the sort of thing a violinist will recognize if (s)he is looking only at the part Elgar wrote for her/him to play. Even the piano reduction may not adequately convey this particular critical role assumed by the ensemble.
This would seem to be the explanation for why Frank argued so strongly for studying the full orchestral score. On the large scale this is the only way to recognize the high-level architectural decisions Elgar made in structuring this concerto. However, things are just important at the detailed level, in which the soloist will be informed by all those marks (including the verbal ones) dealing with dynamics and tempo, not only for the solo line but also for all of the other instrumental parts.
This Conservatory Orchestra concert will be given only one performance on Saturday, December 13, at 8 p.m.Tickets will be $20 for general admission and $15 for students, seniors, and Friends of the Conservatory. Tickets may be purchased online through a Click4Tix Web page or by calling the Box Office at 415-503-6275. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Monday through Friday.