It is the most human thing in the world to want to hear a story. Stories are our most basic means of making sense out of things: we use them to gather and organize information and experiences and to try to understand our world.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra takes full advantage of the love of story with its annual “Beyond the Score” multimedia program, which uses narration, actors, musical examples, excerpts from historical texts, and projected images to explore the creation, context, and content of a piece of music before playing the piece itself.
Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” (1898-99) provides good fodder for this format at Sunday's performance. Its 14 movements (following the theme) are each a portrait of a beloved member of Elgar’s social circle.
Collectively, they are a mix of his close friends, his dear wife, and acquaintances from his small town and its environs; some were musicians, some not. It is the kind of material that asks an audience to imagine their way into a composer’s mind, even as the composer was imagining himself into the minds of others.
The explanatory program opened by putting us in a time and place: narrator Norman Gilliland of Wisconsin Public Radio shared historical tidbits about the town of Malvern, where Elgar lived, speaking against picturesque images of the countryside and recorded sound of birds twittering. From there, the program unfolded with James Ridge playing Elgar; Kelsey Brennan and Brian Mani taking on a variety of personas; and the orchestra and pianist Dan Lyons providing musical excerpts.
It was intriguing to receive short narrative sketches of the people presented in the variations. It enriched the listening to know the great affection and wit that Elgar brought to each portrait. Where one movement expressed his great admiration for his wife, another depicted a scene when a friend’s dog went tumbling into a river and the dog barked triumphantly upon emerging.
The explanatory program was at its strongest when historical quotes and musical sounds were tied closely to one another. It was delightful to hear quotes from Elgar and his wife, especially.
The projected images, while sometimes enlightening, were the least robust part of the program. There were great historical photographs and bits of the manuscript in Elgar’s hand. In one particular useful spot early in the program, musical relationships in the theme were illustrated by literally moving notes on a score. But elsewhere the images flagged, as in the too often used documentary technique of panning a still image. Or, weirdly, nearly always showing a flower when the musical portrait was of a woman.
The full, uninterrupted performance was also wonderful, and it was almost a relief to hear an extended piece of music after all the brief excerpts.
The orchestra has become comfortable with big, forceful stretches of music. In the seventh variation, about an enthusiastic but unaccomplished piano student, it was as if a tornado was blowing through the hall.
By contrast, the moments of quiet intimacy felt less comfortable. The fifth movement characterizes the son of a poet, and alternates between lovely, earnest passages and lighthearted ones, and in both case I wanted more: more sinking into the tenderness and more lightness in the playful sections. There were several spots on other movements where it was difficult to hear a soloist, even if the orchestra was spare and quiet.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which created “Beyond the Score” has ceased developing new productions. But with a catalog of nearly 30 programs available and a performance schedule that features just one program a year, the MSO could tell stories for a generation.