Over the last year, if my reaction is anything to go by, groans have been arising from composers’ rooms around Britain and further away, as a fourteen-strong group of us attempted a tough assignment posed by our conductor friend, Martyn Brabbins; the creation of a new set of Enigma Variations in time for this year’s Proms, no less.
Accordingly, a mystery theme arrived in the post a year or two ago; we have not been told who wrote this, and apparently it will remain a mystery. Uttering my first groan, I found it rather featureless and thin (especially compared with the beautiful tune Elgar worked on) and I was not alone. But that may have been part of the masterplan; nothing too obtrusively styled in melody or harmony, to give extra freedom. As it turned out, Martyn’s groundplan, of carefully assigning one of Elgar’s variations to each of us as a sort of skeleton, turned out to be crucial, assuring flow and contrast especially of tempi in a concert piece of over 30 minutes’ duration.
The BBC Scottish Symphony worked on this huge heap of new music with great assurance and courtesy. Concerned as I was on the day with my own bit of music (I had been given Dorabella to emulate) I haven’t retained extensive memory, yet, of the whole set. But it was fascinating to hear familiar styles battling their way through this conceptual curtain - Birtwistle’s idea of Nimrod, for instance. I enjoyed Sally Beamish’s nod to Martyn’s former career as a trombonist, and Brett Dean’s version of Ysobel – the viola-playing lady who found string crossing rather difficult portrayed by an ex-Berlin Phil violist. My composing takeaway, something I’d be interested to try one day, was from John Pickard’s use of the organ in the final variation – as part of the orchestra, suddenly magically reinforcing it without making us jump. By the end of the evening in the Albert Hall, I’d been won over. And of course, after going through this unusual experience, the actual Enigma Variations, which concluded the concert, have never sounded better.