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SCRUTINY | Odd TSO Program Doesn’t Add Up — Even With James Ehnes

By Arthur Kaptainis on May 31, 2024

Violinist James Ehnes was the soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Ben Ealovega)
Violinist James Ehnes was the soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Ben Ealovega)

Guillaume Connesson: Les Cités de Lovecraft; Bernstein: Serenade; Poulenc: Suite from Les biches; Gershwin: An American in Paris. Toronto Symphony Orchestra,  Stéphane Denève, conductor; James Ehnes, violin. Roy Thomson Hall, May 29, 2024. Repeats June 1 (8 p.m.). Tickets here.

Concerts come in various shapes and sizes, including irregular, which is one way of describing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra program heard Wednesday in Roy Thomson Hall. It was a diverting but ultimately unsatisfying evening, despite the presence of the reliable James Ehnes as soloist.

The title selection (and only decent piece of orchestral music) was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. This exuberant tone poem of 1928 can hardly fail, but it came close under the busy baton of Stéphane Denève, a U.S.-based French conductor who valued bar-by-bar sonic phenomena at the expense of momentum and continuity. A few fine solo contributions (notably by concertmaster Jonathan Crow and tuba Mark Tetreault) provided respite from a soundscape that was mostly loud and cluttered.

Before this we heard Francis Poulenc’s Suite from Les biches, a saucy ballet of 1923. The best element was the Adagietto, an urbanely elegant movement whose title implies no relation to Mahler. Denève’s fondness for tapping on the brakes had some propriety here.

The concert began with the Canadian premiere of Les Cités de Lovecraft by Guillaume Connesson, a French professor of orchestration (b. 1970) who put his skills lavishly to work in this nine-minute suite of impressions ostensibly drawn from the literary fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft. Colours were ample. Substance was more elusive. A steadier beat would have helped. Anyway, the quickly fading applause did not prevent Denève from forcing a curtain call and lifting up the score triumphantly before the audience.

Stéphane Denève conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo:  Jae Yang)
Stéphane Denève conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jae Yang)

There was authentic enthusiasm for Ehnes, a 2023-24 TSO spotlight artist. Having played Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto last October, the Canadian returned with another American classic, or maybe just semi-classic, Bernstein’s Serenade, a half-hour work of 1954 that uses Platonic dialogue as a framework for five movements representing contrasting points of view.

As might be expected, Ehnes proved a paragon of warm tone and masterly phrasing — a Platonic ideal, if you will. Yet for all its subtlety, his approach to “Agathon,” the slow movement, was subdued. The upbeat finale — a joyful celebration with a hint of jazz, according to the composer — also could have used some extra push.

There could be no reservations concerning Ehnes’s magisterial performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3, given as a generous encore. This was followed by the Largo from Bach’s Solo Sonata No. 3, intimately done.

Perhaps Ehnes (and the TSO) could be persuaded to program a Canadian piece the next time he visits. Alexander Brott’s neglected Violin Concerto comes to mind.

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Arthur Kaptainis
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