The answer to the first question appears to be "we don’t really know," but the answer to the second, in my view, is "no." With the exception of program music, where there are explicit non-musical reference points, a work has to stand or fall on its own merits. Biographical detail can provide illumination, but it can’t be a sine qua non.
I bring this all up because while it’s useful to know that the concerto was dear to Elgar’s heart, it doesn’t make the work any more approachable for me. Yes, it’s filled with much that is admirable and even moving. The second movement, for example, is often ravishingly beautiful and the remarkable accompanied cadenza in the finale, with pizzicato tremolando strings in the background, has an unearthly quality for which I find myself unable to find adequate words. But ultimately the lack of differentiation among the concerto’s themes, at least to my ears, renders it structurally murky and makes it feel overwrought and over-long.
In his liner notes for the 1993 recording of the concerto, Michael Kennedy quotes Elgar as describing the work as follows: "It's good! awfully emotional! too emotional, but I love it." Perhaps a little less love and a bit more rigor would have helped.
That said, you could hardly ask for a better performance than the one we got Friday night. Soloist Tasmin Little and conductor Sir Andrew Davis are major exponents of the work and their commitment showed in every note. Ms. Little, resplendent in a golden gown, attacked the music with a fierce and even (at times) grim concentration that yielded a presentation rich in poetry and virtuosity. Sir Andrew, for his part, led the orchestra in a nicely paced and lovingly shaped collaboration (you could hardly call it accompaniment, given how well Elgar integrated the solo part with the orchestra). Conducting without a baton, he shaped phrases with his hands in a way that was remarkable to watch. No wonder their 2010 Chandos recording has garnered critical raves. If, like Elgar, you love the "Violin Concerto," you won’t want to miss this performance.
For me, though, the real highlight of the evening was the Beethoven "Symphony No. 4" that followed intermission. Whether or not you go along with the "Music History 101" notion that Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are lighter in tone than his odd-numbered ones, there’s no getting around the fact that the fourth is all a-bubble with good humor. From the lively Allegro vivace that follows the highly dramatic opening Adagio of the first movement, to the comical little descending passage for bassoon that interrupts the coda of the finale, this is music by a composer young enough to be optimistic but mature enough to have mastered his craft.
Sir Andrew gave us a performance that was cheerfully boisterous without sacrificing the drama of that opening Adagio or the beauty of the second movement. The musicians played at their usual high level, which meant that the many little star turns Beethoven devised for the woodwinds sounded especially fine. Congratulations to Mark Sparks (principal flute), Barbara Orland (acting co-principal oboe), Scott Andrews (principal clarinet), and Andrew Cuneo (principal bassoon) for their solo work and, while I’m thinking of it, to associate principal timpanist Tom Stubbs as well for his reliably precise work.
The concert opened with an exquisitely nuanced "Walk to the Paradise Garden", originally composed by Frederic Delius in 1907 to cover a long scene change in his opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet." This portrait of the intense passion of the doomed lovers has since taken on a life of its own on the concert stage. It’s quintessential Delius, with shimmering strings and a pervasive sense of pastoral beauty, all of which came through wonderfully in this performance, including some nice solo work by Ms. Orland and associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell. Sir Andrew even allowed a moment of silence at the end that felt just right. Well done.
Perhaps the best thing about Friday night’s concert, though, was the obvious joy with which Sir Andrew approached the entire business. This was apparent, for example, during the curtain calls, when he ran back into the orchestra to shake hands with individual players and repeatedly encourage the musicians to stand up and take their well-deserved bows. This is a man who takes immense public pleasure from music making and, as a result, inspires it in the audience as well.
Next on the calendar: Richard Kaufman conducts "An Afternoon at the Oscars" on Sunday, March 3, at 3 PM. Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Peter Henderson perform Messiaen’s "Harawi" on Wednesday, March 6, at 7:30 PM at the Pulitzer Foundation. The regular season resumes on Friday, March 8, at 10:30 AM and Saturday, March 9, at 8 PM with Alban Berg’s "Violin Concerto," Brahms’s "Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn," and Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 2." David Robertson conducts with soloist James Ehnes. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org