WFP review; Ehnes, Armstrong

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Grammy-winning James Ehnes proves he’s forever a Prairie boy

Home is where the heart is, but in the case of world-class violinist James Ehnes, it’s also where the seeds were first sown that has propelled him to become one of the greatest living violinists.

Now based in Bradenton, Fla., the Brandon-born artist returned to his Prairie roots Wednesday night with American pianist Andrew Armstrong. The powerhouse musicians are on a whirlwind Canadian tour — including a stop earlier this week in his hometown — celebrating Ehnes’s 40th birthday last January. The longtime collaborators last appeared on the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra stage in 2010, with Ehnes consistently welcomed like a conquering hero every time he performs locally.

Notably, the mid-week concert sold out well over a month ago, and the musician graciously offered to perform a same-day, one-hour matinée concert that also spoke to his generosity of spirit as well as ironclad stamina.

Some artists are simply born with that magical, illusive ‘it’ factor. Ehnes has always possessed that kind of charisma in spades, with his Midas touch seemingly turning all his concert performances and recordings to gold. But even with his ever-growing list of prestigious awards and accolades that has included multiple Grammy and Juno awards — among others — he always appears truly humbled by his own success, endearing himself as a Prairie boy forever in Manitobans’ hearts.

The program opened with Handel’s Sonata in D Major, an elegant work that provided the first taste of his sublime artistry, as well as his famous, honeyed-tone 1715 ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius, which Ehnes has played since 1996.

After being welcomed to the stage, the two launched into the four-movement work’s Affettuso that leads to its bright Allegro. Ehnes’ crisp attack fuelled by nimble bowing breathed new life into this Baroque classic, with the equally gifted Armstrong matching the soloist note for note with his own florid ornamentation. The two play as though in a conversation between good friends, with an innate rapport that is palpable. Ehnes also displayed his gorgeous lyricism during the Larghetto before returning to an exuberant Allegro finale.

The program’s second cornerstone, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, a.k.a. Spring, proved an apt choice, with Ehnes first stating a genuine, “It’s wonderful to be here,” before his tongue-in-cheek “I hear you had snow last week.”

The duo performed like a breath of fresh spring air, with Ehnes’s fluid bow cresting over its arching themes. However, this is still Beethoven, and Armstrong infused it with requisite temperament that became a compelling juxtaposition of blue skies and rolling storm clouds.

By the time of its second movement, Adagio molto espressivo, the rapt audience was firmly under their spell, as Ehnes sensitively caressed sound from his fiddle.

The Scherzo displayed his lightness of touch with the finale Rondo, including dramatic flourishes and jaunty dotted rhythms, resulting in the first of many rousing standing ovations that night.

Another treat proved to be Bramwell Tovey’s Stream of Limelight, which was composed especially for the tour, with Ehnes describing the English-born, former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra maestro whom he initially met in 1988 as his “dear friend, mentor, and great hero.” The episodic work begins with a plaintive cry from the depths, and traverses the sonic vistas including delicately textured, imagistic sections before its final pyrotechnics performed wholly with conviction.

Then it became, as Ehnes himself told us, “time for the fun stuff.” First he threw sparks with Rimsky-Korsakov’s buzzing Flight of the Bumblebee, as well as during award-winning composer James Newton Howard’s “fast, really fast” 133 … At Least.

Spontaneously calling out each piece from the stage — as Armstrong whipped pages in his score to keep up — Ehnes treated the crowd to an eclectic feast of a half-dozen more works that also spoke to his ability to morph between styles on a single bow stroke.

Ehnes further exhibited his flexible rubato in Sibelius’s limpid Lullaby, as well as during an unabashedly romantic arrangement of Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita. Molly on the Shore by Percy Grainger lent a Celtic flavour before an all-guns-blazing interpretation of Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella.

Finally, the dynamic duo performed Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, Op. 3 that led to another thunderous standing ovation with cries of bravo by the ecstatic crowd for their hero and one of the province’s most illustrious musical sons — doubtlessly heard all the way to Wheat City itself.

Winnipeg Free Press, 19 May 2016
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano
Westminster United Church
Wednesday, 18 May 2016
Attendance: 900 (sold out)
5 stars out of 5