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SCRUTINY | James Ehnes Makes a Beeline For Elgar At The TSO

By Michael Vincent on June 10, 2016

TSO: James Ehnes, Peter Oundjian (Photo: Emma-Badame)
TSO: James Ehnes, Peter Oundjian (Photo: Emma-Badame)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with James Ehnes (soloist) Peter Oundjian (conductor) at Roy Thomson Hall, Thursday, June 9. (Repeats through Saturday).

★★★ 1/2 (out of four)

[Originally published in the Toronto Star)

Middle age can often result in a clichéd purchase of a neon yellow Mustang convertible. But for violinist James Ehnes, he has, wisely, used his 40th birthday the best way a concert violinist can: a 25-city tour.

Taking a break from the tour, Ehnes made a beeline for Elgar’s Violin Concerto as part of the TSO’s final Decades Project concert yesterday. Originally written for violinist Fritz Kreisler, it’s a hankering work whose heart-on-sleeve emotion makes it a penetrable listen, especially when sandwiched with Webern and Stravinsky.

Elgar’s Concerto has been gaining in popularity over the years, and Ehnes, like a matinée idol, was present for the bravura passages in every sense of the word. His tone may not be the most far-reaching, but Ehnes’ artistry was more about exploring the architectural shape of the work rather than building the themes individually. With a bow, he chipped away at the marble until Elgar’s statue stood at the end of the third movement, holding a Windflower.

The orchestra, especially during the Allegro, was slightly overbearing at times, but Peter Oundjian reined in the strings to allow Ehnes the room to explore the emotional core of the work.

Before the Elgar was Webern’s microscopic Five Pieces for Orchestra,  which Oundjian held with a steady baton. Unfortunately, from my vantage, the reading of the five itty-bitty studies seemed too brittle for Roy Thomson Hall’s cavernous acoustics. The works’ detailed minutia were last seen hovering somewhere near the hall’s oculus ceiling. They’re probably still there.

Closing the concert was The Rite of Spring. I can’t report any riots like the opening in 1913, but there was a noisy oxygen tank, which after an hour, was like concertizing beside Darth Vader. One can’t blame the elderly patron, but I must admit it was difficult sitting through a show surrounded by life support equipment.

Despite the iron lung, Stravinsky’s masterpiece of all things weird and bizarre was in good hands. Once uninhibited from their mutes, the brass pulled no punches, and the strings were not to be undone with Stravinsky’s famous Eb polychord. The percussion, in particular, were on point, and a dancing Peter Oundjian passed out the cues like there was no tomorrow. Even the washboard player got one.

I’ve often wondered who enjoys The Rite of Spring more — the audience or the orchestra? It’s hard to say, but I think everyone walked away impressed.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig van Toronto. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
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