James Ehnes returns as ISO violin soloist, with Peter Oundjian, a fellow Canadian (by professional adoption), on the podium

James Ehnes' recordings seem immaculate to me, and his most recent previous appearance as an Indianapolis
Canadian violinist James Ehnes also has family roots in Indiana.
Symphony Orchestra
guest soloist led me to anticipate the best from his performance Friday night of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor.

To say I was not disappointed is an understatement. Among his other honors, the 43-year-old Canadian recently snagged a 2019 Grammy for his recording of Aaron Jay Kernis' violin concerto. He hews to a high standard on the concert stage as well.

Technically secure at every point, he is also an insightful interpreter. On the former topic, for instance, his bow control is phenomenal, which the virtuosity of this concerto requires. It was particularly evident in the first of two encores he played at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday — Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 3 ("Ballade"). In forceful playing there and in the Sibelius, especially when phrases are separated by rests, he never tears the ends off. Some violinists can get away with that kind of roughness, but it is not necessary to attach a shred or two just to display passionate involvement.

The first long solo "paragraph" in the concerto was a model in covering the work's expressive terrain.
The opening phrase, "sweet and expressive," yields to complicated figurations and sudden shifts in dynamics. Admirable was Ehnes' way of maintaining the integrity of that initial statement; you never had the feeling the music had been jerked onto a new plane.

Partnership with the orchestra, guided by guest conductor Peter Oundjian, who boosted the profile of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra immensely in 14 seasons (ending last year) as its music director, was secure throughout: When the orchestra needed to be under the soloist, it was, and that helped all players sustain the tension and release built into the piece's consistent mutual rapport. In the finale, the violinist exhibited pristine harmonics among the dazzling display the composer sets before the soloist. The rapid pace of that movement was bit of a surprise: "Allegro, ma non tanto" asks for a subjective judgment of what "not too fast" means after the generically lively indication of "Allegro." To me the tempo, while sustainable by soloist and orchestra alike Friday, seemed too fast. It made the Sibelius more of a display piece, and frontloaded the work's weight more than necessary on the first movement. Otherwise, the performance's warmth and energy carried the day.

The influence of Sibelius upon the Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor of William Walton is so conspicuous that the critic and program annotator Michael Steinberg wrote: "A musical acquaintance once challenged me to write about the Walton First without mentioning Sibelius. It is not to be done." The first orchestral tutti in the Sibelius concerto, for example, certainly shaped the long lines that overlap the nervous energy in the English composer's textural handprint.
Wholehearted: Peter Oundjian conducted Walton's first symphony.

The influence continues throughout, but it never makes the Walton seem derivative. The 1935 work is busier and more tonally ambiguous. Its expressive contours are more pronounced and the depth of feeling is allowed more explicit expression than the Finn permits. In Freudian terms, Sibelius often seems to be creatively negotiating repression, while here at least Walton boosts the tumult of his id up to the level of sublimation. This gives outsize freedom to the finale, which immediately announces its triumphalism in a manner that Walton was soon to exploit in "Crown Imperial," a march composed for the 1937 coronation of George VI.

A final link to Sibelius is obvious at the very end: As in the Sibelius Fifth, the Walton First concludes with several loud, separated chords. Its apparently first-ever performance by the ISO brings to mind one of my favorite stories of Raymond Leppard, the ISO's conductor laureate, who in 1975 led the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in the Walton B-flat minor. It was an especially good performance, Leppard recalls, and I'll let him finish the account: "The excitement was evidently shared by the audience, for in the silence following the first of the final crashes a man's voice shouted a loud 'bravo.' The next crash came quickly upon it, and elicited a rather surprised but audible 'Oh' from the same voice. Another crash and it called out — by way, I suppose, of genial apology — 'Sorry!'"

Nearly dissolving in mirth, according to Leppard's memory, the orchestra could barely finish the series of crashes. The ISO performance didn't afford such amusement, but it was properly stirring. Oundjian's communicative mastery of the score meant that the "Presto, con malizia" second movement, with its heading uncommonly calling for "malice" expressively, was truly diabolical, with some feathery insinuations only reinforcing the mood. The "melancholy" explicitly asked for in the succeeding movement was fully supplied in the flute solos that frame it, and the lonely, questioning mood was conspicuous, especially toward the hushed ending. The grandiose finale, with Walton's individualized treatment of fugal writing ascending to almost overwhelming displays of brass and percussion, took robust flight under the conductor's effusive control.


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