Review: Some Manitoba magic with Ehnes and Tovey on the Southam Hall stage

James Ehnes performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto with NACO Saturday.

It was a Manitoba reunion of sorts Wednesday at NACO, with former Winnipeg Symphony music director Bramwell Tovey conducting Brandon-born violinist James Ehnes. The evening was supposed to feature the premiere of a new violin concerto Tovey is writing for Ehnes. That project is now postponed, so Ehnes played the Sibelius Violin Concerto instead.

At 43, Ehnes still has the boyish, self-deprecating, small-town Canadian charm that made him an audience favourite when he was a teenage prodigy. But don’t let the aw-shucks personality fool you: Ehnes is a boy wonder no longer, but has matured into an artist of extraordinary depth, insight and self-assurance.

So many violinists attack the Sibelius like it owes them money, their playing all aggression and drama. Not Ehnes, who prefers to have a meeting of minds with the composer, rather than beat him into submission. This was refined, sensitive, meticulously detailed music making. Ehnes never makes a cavalier gesture, his taste and choices are always soberly exquisite, his approach collegial in every sense.

What sets a great interpretation of the Sibelius apart from a good one isn’t the virtuosity displayed in the big moments, but the attention given to the small ones. There’s a section in the first movement where Sibelius wrote a short dialogue between the soloist and the principal viola, who is stating one of the secondary themes. It’s not a flashy or particularly difficult passage, and it often slips by unnoticed. But Ehnes and David Marks played it reverentially, Tovey astutely fading the rest of the orchestra into a soft halo around them. In the words of Marie Kondo, it sparked joy. 

After the Sibelius, and before his encore — a luxurious, seductive performance of Ysaye’s third sonata — Ehnes told the audience how delighted he was about the re-design at Southam Hall, declaring it one of his new top favourite venues.

In the second half, Tovey and the orchestra failed to make a case for Tchaikovsky’s third symphony, but it wasn’t from lack of effort. The piece is, frankly, a hot mess: full of awkward, angular themes that sound like Swan Lake rejects and whole sections that come across like a very rough draft for the sixth symphony. Tchaikovsky even throws in a clumsy fugue in the last movement. But it’s certainly rousing and boisterous, with a big, juicy, crowd-pleasing ending that Tovey knew how to milk for full effect. There were fine solos too, particularly from flutist Joanna G’froerer and bassoonist Chris Millard.

The evening had opened with Delius’ lush pastoral sketch, On hearing the first cuckoo in spring. Tovey coaxed tender, green-shoot pastel colours from the orchestra, framing the lilting rhythms in a sort of meditative, somnolent fuzz. Punctuated by Kimball Sykes’s plaintive “cuckoos” on the clarinet, it was an appropriate piece to mark the Spring Equinox.

The concert repeats Thursday night.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.