Tasmin Little’s two week residency with the Seattle Symphony ended this weekend. The series of concerts she played marked the violinist’s debut with Seattle’s orchestra. The concerts also demonstrated Little’s command of unlike repertoire. During her stay, she played pieces for solo violin, Vivaldi’s excessively famous Four Seasons, and most recently Edward Elgar’s hauntingly romantic violin concerto. Her performance of Elgar’s concerto was the capstone event for the violinist and the orchestra these last two weeks.
Elgar’s Violin Concerto was composed on the cusp of the 20th Century. Mahler’s symphonies, Richard Strauss’s Salome, and Schoenberg’s experimentations with atonality were well underway by the time Edward Elgar had finished his fifty plus minute concerto – the first piece the composer wrote for solo violin. With musical innovation everywhere, audiences might have expected a piece from Elgar that also pushed music into new sound and structural realms. Elgar, however, had different ideas. At its very core, the concerto is an extension of the Romantic sound of the 19th Century and a continuation of Elgar’s penchant for encoding his music with extra musical, personal meaning like he did with his earlier piece the Enigma Variations.
Like a lot of Romantic music, the concerto is both long-winded and utterly sensual. One minute the music is frustrating and the next transfixing. The musical language is easy to listen to, but the meaning hard to divine.
Little and the orchestra made a convincing case for the piece even if Little herself failed to put her own stamp on the music. Elgar’s orchestral writing is such that it could easily overwhelm the solo violin. Most of the time, Schwarz kept his orchestra at bay. Only occasionally did a string swell overpower Little. Within the orchestra, however, the woodwinds and brass were muzzled to the point of inaudibility during the first movement. A disappointing oversight.
Nevertheless, the focus for the first half was Little. Her passage work was smooth, articulation pronounced, and tone warm. Though her technical abilities were astounding, overall her performance was straightforward and lacking in introspection. Elgar’s concerto is so large, so obtuse, soloists need to do more than just play the notes on the page, or in Little’s case, the notes in her head.
I hate to say this, but Dvorak’s 6th symphony, left me flat. My problems were with the music itself and not the performance. The 6th symphony sits between Dvorak’s early, Slavic inspired music and his mature trio of later symphonies 7-9. The symphony refers to the composer’s earlier Slavonic Dances, and the most effective movement for me, the scherzo, is the most obviously connected to the folk-inspired Dances. The Seattle Symphony captured the rowdiness of this movement. Afterward, I wondered if programming the extroverted Slavonic Dances – all or some – for the second half, would have been a better match for Elgar’s moody concerto.