Although tremendously impressed by the soloist's technical skill, I was decidedly unimpressed by the performance as a whole. It could be, perhaps, that my already sour mood was partly to blame; it could also be that Paganini wrote mainly for himself, and the concerto sounded more like a ridiculously fast and shrill version of those exercises one learns when first trying a string instrument than actual music. Either way, he received a standing ovation, reappeared on stage several times, and on the fourth reentrance decided to grace us all with an encore solo piece which, again, was brimming with technicality but devoid of soul.
The second half of the concert was the real reason I was there. Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. I listened to the Andante, as the theme started out soft and slow. Soon, the painfully familiar notes of Variation IX began. Richter took the movement slowly and I sank into it as into mud; as the theme swelled larger and stronger, I became aware of the blood pumping through my body, moving back and forth in heaving spurts, alternating warmer and cooler. The piece, as a wave on the shoreline, crashed right as it crested, and a tear fell from my eye. I was left trembling and breathless, my muscles achingly tense, my attention rapt but elsewhere, until the musicians broke from their still silence and turned pages, shaking me from the spell.
It is enough to recount what the program notes said of Variation IX to understand the gravity of the movement.
"Variation IX. Nimrod is August Jaeger, perhaps the closest friend Elgar ever had, other than his wife Alice. A German immigrant, he touchingly sustained the composer through frequent periods of self-doubt and depression. Understandably, then, this music is the very core of the Enigma Variations. 'Jaeger' is German for 'hunter,' and Nimrod, Noah's son, is the 'mighty hunter' referred to in Genesis 10. The variation recalls 'a long summer evening talk' with Jaeger concerning 'the slow movements of Beethoven... It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of [Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata].' Jaeger died a youn man in 1909, still sorely missed twenty years later as Elgar wrote: 'His place has been occupied but never filled.' "It is a pain with which I am far too familiar.
The concert ended on Elgar's pompous self-portrait, the last of the Variations, and another standing ovation ensued. Taking the stage one last time, the orchestra played a rousing encore of a better known Elgar piece: the first Pomp and Circumstance march.
The night over, we battled the Sundown crowd once more to make our way onto the interstate, then headed home, a bit wistful, a bit sorrowful, but, in the end, glad to have been.
And, lest the post end on a depressing note, I woke this morning with a different tune in my head.