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Concert Review/ James Ehnes & Toronto Symphony Orchestra

img  Tobias Fischer

James Ehnes, Soloist/Leader
Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

January 19th
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.1 in B Flat Major, K.207
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.2 in D Major, K.211
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major, K.216

January 20th
Mozart: Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, K.373
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.4 in D Major, K.218
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.5 in A Major, K.219 “Turkish”

  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Peter Oundjian recently embarked on a week-long residency in Florida. Touring with the Orchestra was James Ehnes, the celebrated Canadian violinist who now calls Bradenton his home. While American audience had the great fortune to hear Ehnes and the TSO perform the works of Barber, Tchaikovsky, and the Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, their swift reunion up in the Canadian North this past Wednesday and Thursday proved no less impressive. The shear ovation at the end gave the musicians a great sense of pride and encouragement as they embark into a new start in 2011.

   January 19th-30th constitutes the TSO’s Mozart@255 Festival. This will be a valuable chance for music lovers to hear concertos, symphonies and arias by the Austrian composer performed by the TSO, alongside with guests that include Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Jeffrey Kahane, Bernard Labadie, among others. Kicking-off the Festival, James Ehnes and ~25 musicians from the TSO took up a traversal project (and indeed, in a rare opportunity) to survey all Five Violin Concerti and the Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, K.373. At the start of the two concerts, Ehnes commented that “Mozart wrote all these Concertos before the age of 20 [except the Rondo, which he wrote at the age of 25 in maturity], which is both humbling and daunting.” How so?

   Unlike Haydn’s Violin Concertos from approximately the same period, Mozart’s set of five is a combination of the chamber- and vocal-like qualities, some of which are exemplified by the interwoven dialogue between the violinist and the orchestra. To regular concert-goers of the TSO, these two performances were occasions to hear the Orchestra on a more intimate level, in part contributed by the specific seating arrangement from the ~25 musicians who gave an overall balanced and warmly condensed sound. A hemi-circle arrangement of the violins (from the audience’s view: 1st violins – left; 2nd violins – right; violas – flanked by the violins at the center to right; celli – flanked by the violins at the center to left; double-basses – rear left), the oboes and flutes (at the center behind the celli and violas; the latter of which only appeared in the Third Concerto), and the two horns (at the rear center behind the winds) helped to direct the aural and visual experience for the listener.

    Opening the first half of Wednesday’s concert were the Concertos No.1 in B Flat and No.2 in D Major, which are arguably the lesser known within the five. Since both were written in the same year within the span of two months, they generally have more similarities in style than differences, albeit the latter demonstrates a step forward in the style of Mozart’s writing. In the first movements, Ehnes presented the thematic materials in a dichotomy of contrasts, distinct but ever so poignant and personal in character, which matched well by the orchestra in relatively subservient roles as the scoring dictated. The slower movements, as in nearly all the slower movements of Mozart’s works, were performed like operatic cantilenas, but cleverly camouflaged as lyrical melodies without words from the solo lines. The second movement of the Concerto No.2 highlighted unison between the muted violins and pizzicato-playing of the lower string musicians, vividly depicting a dream-like scene that cushioned Ehnes’ solo entries. Both finales have a simple, carefree element in style, which our soloist and the TSO emphasized in a more engaged manner the sparkling and contrasting episodes especially with the Concerto No.2.

    The Concerto No.3 in G Major in the latter half is unique for its originality in style. For a composer at the age of 19, its conception is clearly without antecedent, wherein both the soloist and orchestral members each have unusually balanced parts that are as much compliments as well as contradictions of each other. The results turned out to be fun even for the listeners. Beginning with the opening movement, Mozart toys with a motif that originates from one of his comic operas Il rè pastore. Here, the TSO members presented it in a gallantly manner. Shortly after, Ehnes’ solo entry came into the musical picture like a lyrical counterpart, fluid with a singing quality, and this proceeded in a manner that marked stark contrasts to the varied orchestral colors. As a composer, Mozart writes exceptionally beautifully for the winds, and it is no exception with this Concerto. In the second movement Adagio, the sparing use of two flutes highlighted a beautiful execution that came in part from principal flautist, Nora Shulman. Along with the bed of string instruments played with con sordino execution, Ehnes delivered illustriously like a storyteller, so sweet and serene was his tone he would have lured even a singing bird on the tree! The finale came out effectively as a witty dance, which Ehnes further decorated it with a folksy-element that foreshadowed what is to come on the Concerto No.5, one of the major highlights presented in the very next afternoon. 

      It is worthy of note that in all of the Concerti performed during the span of two days, Ehnes furnished each of the scores with his own cadenzas. They are deceivingly simple by ear, but in effect tremendously difficult to play even by the standards of the violinist himself. Compared with his recording of the Mozart Works for Violin and Orchestra on CBC Records, these cadenzas Ehnes played in concert may varied ever so slightly in presentation. Nonetheless, they presented themselves as a kaleidoscope of Ehnes’ talents: as a virtuoso, as a lyricist and as a humble musical personality.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Benjamin Ealovega

Homepage: James Ehnes
Homepage: Toronto Symphony Symphony Orchestra