NACO on Tour: Ehnes, Wall shine in Utrecht

James Ehnes delivered a sterling performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Photo: Fred Cattroll

UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS — The city of Utrecht hold an important place in Canadian history.

In 1713, a treaty signed in the city hall in 1713 saw some French colonies of the day, notably Newfoundland, Acadia and the area around Hudson’s Bay handed over to England.

Canada and Holland, of course, have important historic connections dating from the Second World War when the Dutch royal family was resident in Ottawa for the duration. Princess Margriet was born in the Civic Hospital on Jan. 19, 1943. And in the months after D-Day, Canadian soldiers helped liberate The Netherlands from German occupation. The 75th anniversary of the fateful day is coming up in about two weeks.

To this day the people of Holland give Ottawa thousands of tulips that bloom every spring and brighten the city.

The NAC Orchestra’s performance in the Tivoli Vredenburg performing arts complex on Monday night was dedicated to that long and happy relationship. Those who were in attendance got a real treat from a bevy of talented Canadians including soprano Erin Wall and the great virtuoso violinist James Ehnes.

Ehnes first: How he does it after flying across the Atlantic is beyond me. But the man from Brandon, Manitoba delivered a bravura performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It was an offering full of the passion and emotion that is in what is considered one of the great concertos for violin. Ehnes handled it with his typical ease and grace.

After two curtain calls the indefatigable, unflappable Ehnes came back for an encore performance of Eugène Ysaÿe‘s Violin Sonata no. 3. There is an indirect connection between the two pieces. Ysaÿe is one of many violinists who have recorded the Mendelssohn. Ehnes has recorded it too, in 2011 with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The Ysaÿe sonata couldn’t be more different from the Mendelssohn, full of twists and turns and a certain spare intensity. Ehnes said afterward that he has been playing the piece for the past few months and is excited by the exploration.

Erin Wall takes a well-deserved bow after performing Claude Vivier’s The Lonely Child. Photo: Fred Cattroll

He has joined the NACO expedition and will perform May 22 in Copenhagen and May 24 in Stockholm as the tour heads north. The Copenhagen concert will be broadcast live on Danish Public radio.

There was another Canada-Utrecht connection revealed Monday night. The composer Claude Vivier left Canada to study in Europe. He started in Utrecht where he worked withIn 1971, Vivier left Canada for Europe, studying electroacoustic music with Gottfried Michael Koenig. It was later on this three-year exploration that Vivier studied composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. The three years would set him on a new direction into music such as The Lonely Child, with which NACO opened the concert Monday night.

One hears a lot about how inaccessible Vivier can be first time around but this piece was not. It was melodically interesting and emotionally powerful. Alexander Shelley says it has a different “soundworld” and indeed it does. But that doesn’t mean it is unlistenable. Quite the opposite.

Much of the credit for that goes to Erin Wall, whose clear-as-a-bell soprano voice, aided by her perfect pitch, was the glue that held the whole thing together.

The soprano sings to a lonely child who is afraid of the dark. She uses all her wiles to distract the young child from his fear, including engaging in the kind of gibberish that adults often direct at children. Many think Vivier is the Lonely Child. He was said to be afraid of the dark all his short life.

In the middle of the piece the orchestra stopped and the bass drum, mallet wielded by NACO’s Jonathan Wade, drove home the nails in the cross. It is a stark, powerful moment.

The evening concluded with a performance of Brahms Second Symphony, one of two works being performed interchangeably on tour. The small crowd loved it and that prompted the tour’s regular encore of more Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 6.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.