IN: Reviews

Apollonian Nationalism

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Keila Wakao (Adriana Kopinja photo)

Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia, a musically direct homage to his homeland, opened the Apollo Ensemble’s Saturday concert at First Church in Cambridge. The brass and woodwinds commanded the introductory fanfare with clarity and balance, while rhythmic precision allowed the militaristic elements to complete the portrayal. The hushed reverence accorded to the Finlandia Hymn touched us deeply. Within a span of about eight minutes, we experienced Apollo’s realization of a wide and varied set of musical demands under the attentive direction of Elias Miller.

Keila Wakao took the solo part in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The orchestra’s first eight measures consist of a two-measure melody followed by a four-note scale that lands on the dominant. These four bars repeat with the four-note scale heard next in the winds. The detachment and rhythmic strictness with which the orchestra played these eight measures suggested a Tchaikovsky bowing to his predecessors of the Classical era while saying, “this is the last you will hear of such tidiness.” The orchestra soon becomes passionate, and the violinist enters with a cadenza-like passage that spans two octaves. Wakao made evident her brilliance from the outset. The low notes took on a woody, resonant sound, while the higher notes sang sweetly. From this point the violin occupies center stage. Wakao delivered melodic material that transformed rapidly from charming, to fiery, to tender and back again. After much solo virtuosic display, the orchestra comes forward with its own iteration of the violinist’s opening theme. The orchestra accepted the challenge and put its stamp on the material we had just heard from the soloist. Faithfulness to the original phrasing, the ability to bring out small motivic fragments gave the material a fresh and heroic quality. Disintegration of the heroic episode leads to the violin’s cadenza which features some of the highest notes ever played on the instrument. Again, Wakao wowed us with perfect intonation and a crystalline sound. The cadenza ends with a trill before the flute takes up the theme, reminding the listener of the overall sweetness and beauty. The movement finished with a chordal fanfare.

A wind introduction sets the nostalgic and sad tone of the second movement, titled Canzonetta. The violin’s song commands center stage throughout. Again, Wakao’s ability to vary timbre, color and sonority lent the necessary emotional depth. The lush sounds of the flute and clarinet solos added the finishing touch. The second movement merges with the third, a movement whose tunes and vitality evoke Russian folk tradition. The violin introduces the dancelike main theme. Once again, we bore witness to Wakao’s versatility; she and the orchestra dialogued meaningfully. The piece ended with a thrilling coda.

Each of Elgar’s Enigma Variations on an original theme portrays one of the composer’s musical friends or associates. Colorful and satisfyingly resonant in the space, the orchestra (12-10-9-7-6 strings plus winds, brass, percussion, and organ) opened in hushed tones and restrained tempo, enhancing the pathos inherent in the six-bar minor-mode main theme. The following six measures, in major, witness a transient change of mood. At the return of the original theme violas and celli introduced a counter melody, highlighted expertly by the performers. The 14 variations, which Jeff Bigger described in the program notes [HERE], form a perfect balance of the necessary consistency and variety. Miller encouraged the orchestra to communicate the changes of mood to great effect. The scurrying 16th notes of Variation II had a humorous quality. The woodwinds carried on the tranquility found in the parallel sixths which open Variation 4. Variations 6 and 12 pay homage to violist and cellist friends of Elgar. Commentary from the warm and sonorous woodwind section upped the ante of the solo viola’s sweet charm. In Variation 12, as the descending thirds of the theme become sevenths, the cello solo seemingly emanated from a deep, profound realm. Variation IX, “Nimrod,” begins in its most unadorned form, although the first beat rests have been eliminated; this concentrates power and emotion, which the orchestra fully embraced, coming to a full ff which drops suddenly to ppp as the variation ends. The extroverted, joyous finale portrays Elgar himself.

The forms and harmonic language of the evening’s music originated in the Baroque and Classical eras, yet Miller’s choices showcased an emerging musical nationalism that was felt throughout Europe. Ample applause and post-concert buzz revealed a satisfied crowd.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

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