Ehnes dazzles doing double duty
Brandon violin virtuoso shows off conductor chops
Manitoba’s own golden boy of music made magic again when the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra kicked off its 2016-17 season Tuesday.
The program featured spectacular Brandon-born violin virtuoso James Ehnes performing as both soloist and conductor, attesting not only to his versatility, but also sheer stamina and larger-than-life capacity to do so many things at once — and well.
No stranger to local audiences, Ehnes last appeared on the MCO stage as recently as May when he stopped here with pianist Andrew Armstrong as part of his still ongoing Canadian recital tour celebrating his 40th birthday. Every concert that features the award-winning artist feels like a homecoming, with his rapt listeners welcoming him to the stage with loud cheers and foot stomps as though a red-hot rock star.
The program opened with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20, a three-movement work that evokes windswept moors of a distant past. It also provided the rare, eye-popping vision of Ehnes unassumingly sitting in with the orchestra, as he played off concertmaster Karl Stobbe’s stand while cueing the string orchestra players with subtle nods and waves of his bow that ostensibly became his conductor’s baton.
He also led Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 from the string section, that also spoke to the palpable rapport and trust the MCO players have in him. Thus under his organic direction, the 30-minute work began with good-natured warmth during its opening Moderato, subsequently unfolding through its lilting waltz, and more forceful scherzo movements.
Ehnes is renowned for his carefully considered performances, and every note and nuance appeared thoughtfully in place, albeit more ebb and flow would have allowed the Larghetto, the beating emotional heart of the entire piece, to breathe even more. Still, the Finale capped the performance on a triumphant note, leading to the night’s first rousing standing ovation with the sold-out audience leaping to its feet.
The entire second half featured Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, considered one of the cornerstones of the violin repertoire, and an ideal showcase for Ehnes’s bravura. After his opening rising statement — and now standing centre stage as he led the orchestra sans score — during its Allegro ma non troppo movement, Ehnes immediately got down to the business at hand, coaxing sound out of his enthralling 1715 ex-Marsick Stradivarius.
His expressive artistry includes being able to change tonal colour on a single bow stroke, ranging from gossamer light to darker-hewn textures, while imbuing his solo passages with noble gravitas that is a hallmark of the composer’s style. After essentially blending in with the orchestra during the program’s two serenades, Ehnes finally unleashed his full-bore virtuosity during his first cadenza, including multiple double stops, cascades of sound and pure, unadulterated pyrotechnics that elicited gasps from the crowd. Even the seasoned MCO players were seen grinning ear to ear, despite the sometimes hectic ethos of their intrepid leader having to constantly shift between his dual roles as maestro and soloist that somehow oddly diluted the full impact of the latter.
Nevertheless, Ehnes also exuded poise and confidence during the central Larghetto movement, including its dignified themes, with his violin often climbing into stratospheric heights. Finally, the Rondo: Allegro with its rollicking syncopated rhythms rounded out this satisfying performance before he once again treated us to more fiddle fireworks at its close.
Ehnes, who has regularly graced the MCO stage since his debut at age 16, is always embraced like a conquering hero. And for that, the MCO has wisely chosen to launch its new season with this celebration of one of our province’s greatest, and most dazzling musical sons.
Winnipeg Free Press, 14 September 2016
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
James Ehnes, conductor and violin soloist
Westminster United Church
Tuesday, 13 September 2016
Attendance: 900 (sold out)
4.5 stars out of 5