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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Concert review: James Ehnes and Russell Braun made fine 115th birthday present for Women's Musical Club of Toronto

By John Terauds on May 2, 2013

Carolyn Maule, james Ehnes and Russell Braun at Koerner Hall on Wednesday afternoon (John Terauds phone photo).
Carolyn Maule, James Ehnes and Russell Braun at Koerner Hall on Wednesday afternoon (John Terauds phone photo).

The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto threw itself a big 115th birthday concert to close its season on Wednesday afternoon. It moved from its usual modest home at Walter Hall to Koerner Hall and adding the homegrown star power of violinist James Ehnes, baritone Russell Braun and collaborative pianist Carolyn Maule.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

The icing on this particular birthday cake was the premiere of a new three-song cycle, commissioned from John Estacio.

Ehnes and Braun had performed for the Club as budding professionals. But what we witnessed was the work of two greats.

Ehnes was the most dazzling of the performers by far, displaying technique and control over his instrument that, quite frankly, didn’t seem entirely human. But he also made beautiful music.

His two solo showpieces were the famous Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin and three Caprices by the legendary 19th century virtuoso-composer, Niccolò Paganini.

The Chaconne was a breathtaking show in how much Ehnes could do with a minimum of bowing, conjuring double and triple stops (hitting two or three strings at a time) out of thin air, and balancing two, three and even four lines of music on the tip of his golden-sounding instrument.

The Chaconne is a piece that is big and dramatic as well as intimate, very much like Paganini Caprices. Ehnes managed the dynamic contrasts with ease. He also chose wisely, lining up the No. 9 “Hunt” in E Major, the G minor No. 16, and ending with the spectacular A minor Finale, No. 24.

In the half-second of dead air after the final note of No. 16, one audience member said “Wow!” a little bit too loudly. This broke the accumulated tension in the room as everyone dissolved into laughter before Ehnes could continue his performance.

If Ehnes brought with him superhuman abilities, Braun came bearing humanity and warmth — starting with his lovely burnished baritone and embroidered by his tremendous ability to wring maximum expression and an overriding sense of genuineness out of everything he sang.

Two excerpts from Bach cantatas were a bit of a stiff and formal way to open the concert, even with Ehnes’s violin obbligatos. But Braun’s rendition of the six songs in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To a Distant Beloved) cycle was impeccable, as were his selections of different settings of poetry by A.E. Housman — some sung with violin, some with piano.

The three Estacio songs in the cycle Away and Awake the Night are based on poems by John Murrell, the librettist for his operas Filumena, Frobisher and Lillian Alling. The theme was desire for a distant beloved. The poetry didn’t leave a very fine impression with these ears, but the lush, tonal music was a treat.

These songs deserve to be heard over and over again — and judging from the audience’s reaction on Thursday afternoon, there are ready ears waiting.

Maule was, on the whole, a fine accompanist, but much too discreet, playing as if she wanted to blend in with Koerner Hall’s warm wooden walls.

Other than that, this was one of the great recitals of the season.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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