In the classical music world, we don't often think of musicians as superstars. Brandon-born violinist James Ehnes could just be the exception to the rule.
His resumé comes heavily padded with awards, an extensive discography that never ceases to grow, a huge repertoire from which to choose and a touring schedule that would test even the most experienced flight attendant.
Add the fact he is as close to a hometown boy Winnipeggers are ever going to get and he's truly earned superstar status.
On Friday night, Ehnes' selection to play with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) was the little-heard Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a work Ehnes has been playing since he was a teenager.
Ehnes hit the ground running in the Allegro con fermezza with a distinct folk dance feel, vigorous and busy. The movement is full of charismatic modulations, mood and tempo changes. Ehnes, playing his 1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius, put his heart into the melancholy but lyrical melody, a little Gypsy flavour finding its way in. Every phrase ended with a flourish and a series of double stops lent anticipation for what was to come. Ehnes has the ability to communicate, to take the audience along with him as he expresses so sensitively the composer's intentions. You can't ask more of an artist.
Even the cadenza, which is typically showy, was rendered only subtly so by Ehnes. He has nothing to prove.
The bassoon opened the Andante sostenuto with plaintive echoes of the ashugs, Armenian native minstrel poets. Ehnes reprised the theme with rich, long legato phrases, dripping with emotion. The entire orchestra, led by Alexander Mickelthwate, seemed to creep along with trepidation, basses and cellos anchoring the ensemble. This made for a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere.
Ehnes plays with unbelievable ease; the music seems to flow naturally from his fingers. He made his instrument sing and jig at the same time in the Allegro vivace, a fun and playful theme emerging, full of authentic and colourful musical heritage. Little ornamental touches added that extra spice. The endless technical demands posed no problem for Ehnes -- he can truly play anything.
He received a long standing ovation (even the orchestra wouldn't let him leave) and played an encore -- the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3 with gentle simplicity. Brahms' lush Symphony No. 1 in C minor completed the evening. Intimidated with the responsibility of following in Beethoven's successful symphonic footsteps, Brahms fussed bit by bit over the work before allowing it to be performed in public some two decades later.
It's hard to beat the drama of the opening movement and its many satisfying ebbs and flows. Mickelthwate gave this a well-thought out reading, managing the bold and the beautiful handily. The WSO was in top form, playing throughout with controlled power.
It was a treat to hear the rumbling contra bassoon, and both the oboe and clarinet solos in the patiently paced second movement were absolutely pristine.
The concert repeats tonight at 8 p.m.