Under the baton of music director Dirk Meyer, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra took an aural vacation to the complexity of the British Isles Saturday night for its fourth Masterworks concert of the season at Symphony Hall.
Opening the evening was a selection never previously played by the orchestra, "On the Cliffs of Cornwall," the prelude to the second act of Ethyl Smyth's opera "The Wreckers." The opera is set in a fishing village where the townspeople lure ships onto the rocky coast for plunder. It's a delightfully complex and beautiful piece of music, notable for the instrumentation duplicating the rolling sound of the wind and waves with subdued timpani and the gentle ripples of the harp. Sounds of the seaside coast were punctuated by ships' horns coming from the pointed notes of horns and brass within the orchestra. It was a captivating bit of symphonic storytelling ending with a forlorn and quiet oboe - one of the more emotional instruments in a symphony orchestra.
DSSO concertmaster Erin Aldridge graced the stage in a flowing gown to tremendous applause before she even set her bow to the strings of her violin. Aldridge's annual appearances as a featured soloist are always popular occasions and Saturday's appearance was no different, with her impassioned performance of Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major, Opus 46. The German composer's work premiered in the winter of 1881 in Liverpool and is considered one of the Romantic composer's most popular works. The piece begins solemnly which seems a curious choice but soon opens up gloriously for Aldridge's violin that reaches exquisite moments especially during the adagio cantabile with an engaging Scottish love song. It is pertinent to note that Aldridge, a virtuoso performer, began her musical instruction at age three and has perfect pitch. The sentimentality of her performance flows without failure through every movement; sweeping and majestic to leisurely and charming, her treatment evokes the emotionality of every note through the scherzo to the melancholy tone of the andante. When the last notes were played and the orchestra fell silent, Aldridge received thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
As if the first half of the evening weren't enough of a powerhouse itinerary, after intermission, the orchestra took up Sir Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Opus 36. The work is a favorite of the DSSO through the years, first performed in 1962. As for Elgar, the largely self-taught composer is considered one of the giants of English music. There are 14 variations in the symphony, each a tribute to friends of the composer. Taken together, they tell a delightful story throughout the half-hour performance.
Taking a dive into each variation would tax time and space but there were several notable moments, including the sixth variation "Ysobel" featuring a beautifully rendered solo viola performance full of yearning. In the second variation, "H.D.S.-P." the violin section of the orchestra is magnificent, taking the audience plunging into the movement and then easing into the mellower tones of their instrument's versatility. Variations on an Original Theme is a wonderful vehicle for showcasing the symphony orchestra's chops and the musicians shine. It's also a taskmaster of a composition capably and methodically conducted by Meyer, bringing all the stories and instruments together in luxurious storytelling appreciated overwhelmingly by the audience in Symphony Hall.
It has been a thrilling season of Masterwork concerts from the DSSO thus far. With the journey to the majestic British Isles, the trajectory continues ever upwards. The musical selections were diverse and challenging. And with our own Erin Aldridge's exquisite bow work, the DSSO continues to acquit itself as a shining jewel on the shores of our own great destination.