Conductor, BSO to delve into secrets behind Elgar's 'Enigma'

The Baltimore Sun

For many listeners, Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, better known as the Enigma Variations, is just a great, colorful composition. For others, it's also a 110-year-old mystery begging for a musical detective to arrive at a startling solution.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will revisit that mystery with guest conductor Peter Oundjian this week.

After leading performances of the piece tonight and tomorrow on a program with Dvorak's Cello Concerto and the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes (8 p.m. at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), Oundjian will return to Elgar on Saturday night for an "Off the Cuff" concert (7 p.m. at Meyerhoff). On that occasion, he'll talk about the "enigma" and other secrets of the score before conducting a complete performance.

"I think it's kind of fun to get into the mind of Elgar, who liked to play word games," says Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

One of the games in the Enigma Variations involves initials attached to each variation on the opening theme. The initials identify Elgar's wife and close friends (including a woman who may have been more than a friend), each depicted in the music.

Learning about the people (and one dog) immortalized in this 1899 work is entertaining, but that's the easy part. The challenge is to find the hidden theme, the one never heard but that Elgar said hovers behind the theme that launches the piece. He went to his grave without revealing that other tune.

There have been some wide-ranging guesses over the years, including "Auld Lang Syne" and "Pop Goes the Weasel." Oundjian's cousin, Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, offered a novel one. "He started playing Elgar's theme on the guitar and declared, 'It's "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles,' " the conductor says. That would be the neatest trick of all.

Some suggest that Elgar was just having a last laugh, making people search for something not really there.

"Things like 'Rule, Britannia' really don't work," Oundjian says. "I'm pretty convinced it's the Dies Irae theme." That ancient chant was used in a variety of ways by Berlioz, Rachmaninoff and others; the theory of its use as the "enigma" emerged over the past few decades. "It fits," Oundjian says. "It's funny to think Elgar would use it and not tell us."

Of course, nothing is definite when it comes to this irresistible work. Some things are perhaps better left enigmatic.

For ticket information, call 410-783-8000 or go to

Weekend in New York

New York offered several attractions last weekend, not the least of them the reopening of the once clunky and dry-sounding, now seriously made-over Alice Tully Hall - a $159 million, nearly two-year project, part of an overhaul of Lincoln Center.

Greatly expanded, light-filled lobby spaces effectively open the building up to the world outside, while the theater has its own appeal from a subtly back-lit veneer of moabi wood. The whole place looks quite cool. It sounds good, too, judging by the mixed program offered to launch an Opening Nights festival that runs through March 8 - nearly 20 performances, with $25 tickets or free admission (212-721-6500,

Baltimore's own Leon Fleisher was part of Sunday's program, giving a noble account of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. The Brentano String Quartet, which will be presented here by the Shriver Hall Concert Series next month, delivered a powerhouse performance of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. Early instruments and a modern orchestra all were heard effectively that night, suggesting lots of new life to come for the newly chic venue.

I also caught three remarkable productions at the Metropolitan Opera: Il Trovatore (don't miss the broadcast on radio Saturday), Adriana Lecouvreur (with the apparently ageless Placido Domingo) and Eugene Onegin (gripping vocally and visually).

Go to my blog for more about Tully Hall and the Met performances:

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