Making the most of Mozart, Bach and Shostakovich
Thunderous standing ovation, four curtain calls for James Ehnes
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Canadian superstar violinist James Ehnes received a hero’s welcome Tuesday night, his sublime artistry as bright as stars in a Prairie sky, his tone as golden as the wheat fields surrounding his birthplace of Brandon.
The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra featured the world-renowned artist during the first of two identical concerts held at the Crescent Arts Centre, both evenings led by MCO music director Anne Manson.
No stranger to Winnipeg audiences — Ehnes performed in the city earlier this season; his last MCO appearance was in 2016 — the artist treated the capacity crowd of 650 to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 2918, a.k.a. the “Turkish,” an audience-pleasing work he has performed before on this stage.
Following the orchestra’s crisp introduction during the opening Allegro aperto, Ehnes immediately got down to the matter at hand, holding listeners rapt with his virtuosic technique, flawless intonation and seamless bowing, as his gleaming 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius scaled the heights and leaped across its full range.
Manson’s briskly set tempo arguably prevented the soloist’s second subject from breathing more; however, all was quickly forgiven with Ehnes’ first enthralling cadenza, delivered with poised precision.
He proceeded to display his innate lyricism and sweetly singing tone with the Adagio, including an expressive vibrato, capped by a second cadenza infused with multiple stops delivered with ease.
Then it was time for the rollicking finale, Rondeau: Tempo di Menuetto, in which Ehnes unleashed his full arsenal of pyrotechnics during its “Turkish” section, marked by percussive accents and darkly hewn, unison chromatic crescendos.
After receiving a thunderous standing ovation and demands for four curtain calls, the beaming Ehnes (who appeared genuinely surprised and charmingly humble, having made a mid-performance request to Manson for permission to remove his jacket in the steamy, un-air-conditioned venue), delivered an encore, promising “to send us all home in a good mood.”
His all-guns-blazing performance of the finale Allegro assai from J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in C major, BWV 1005 seemed to gather momentum by the measure, tossed off like child’s play and leading to another rousing ovation.
The 95-minute program (including intermission) also featured Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110A, a string orchestra arrangement by Rudolph Barshai derived from the Soviet-era composer’s Quartet No 8, Op. 110, originally dedicated: “In memory of the victims of fascism and war.”
Manson’s sensitive direction ensured the strings began in hushed tones in their lowest, lugubrious depths, launching the opening Largo before bleeding into the subsequent Allegro molto. This highly visceral movement never fails to shock the senses — especially when hearing it performed live — fuelled by snapping pizzicati in the lower strings, juxtaposed with the violins shrieking through their own acerbic, chromatic passagework.
The players earned kudos for the unflinching rendering of this particular section, which walked a razor’s edge between full control and wild abandon, matched equally by the subsequent Allegretto, with its satiric, biting waltz.
The compelling performance, which included solos by MCO concertmaster Karl Stobbe and cellist Minna Rose Chung, returns to the solemn depths during its two final Largo movements, filled with world-weary resignation under Manson’s expansive baton.
The evening opened with the world première of Jouvert Morning, by Winnipeg composer/conductor Larry Strachan, paying homage to his parents’ Carnival experience in Grenada. The feel-good, effervescent nine-minute piece bursts with ideas, including infectious calypso rhythms contrasted with quieter, more meditative moments of reflection.
Strachan’s textural orchestration — which features the cellos and double basses beating out syncopated rhythms with their hands on the backs of their instruments — even included Manson punctuating key moments with an ear-piercing blast from a whistle slung around her neck. The work was a joyous addition to a springtime program.
The concert repeats tonight, May 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Crescent Arts Centre, 525 Wardlaw Ave. For tickets visit themco.ca.
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