James Ehnes, violinist, violist, and conductor: VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: An English Festival, Orpheum, April 22 and 24, 2017.

Photos: Courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Photos: Courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The Vancouver Symphony’s Spring Festival was given an English theme this year and what better way to send off the first two concerts than having Canada’s stellar James Ehnes participate.  The novelty was that he just didn’t bring his violin: he also brought his viola – to play Walton’s Viola Concerto – and his baton – to conduct a medley of well-known British string works. For many, this would have been the first time they saw the violinist extend his talents so widely. Be assured that not all of Ehnes’ conducting was from the podium; a good deal of it was from the leader’s position. On opening night, he showed both enthusiasm and a fine ear for balance as a maestro, though there were undeniably hits and misses. The performance of the Viola Concerto (with Bramwell Tovey conducting) on the second evening was a tremendous success, showing that Ehnes can get the same beguiling beauty and sculpted line out of the larger instrument.  This concert ended with a performance of Holst’s The Planets – indeed aided and abetted by full screen visuals.

The clear highlight of the first concert was Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia which Ehnes explicitly conducted. This had a particularly fine control of texture, and carried very well through all its engulfing string projections.  Ehnes found passion and sweep in the massed strings but he was always careful to open out the contrasting stillness in the piece, particularly in the quiet organ-like passages for middle strings over bass pedal and in the string quartet interludes. The control at the very end achieved the right feeling of mystical expanse. Elgar’s always-popular Serenade for Strings was not quite as spontaneous in feeling. The balance and refinement in the playing were admirable, but the caution in Ehnes’ approach meant that it did not open out the work’s full yearning and ardour.  I also thought the catchy jogging rhythmic figure in both opening and closing movements was too dominating and should have had more varied presentation. There is doubtlessly both sensitivity and enthusiasm in Ehnes’ conducting, though some may think that his technique of using both arms (hands) synchronized together needs refinement.

The smaller pieces by Benjamin Britten, Lachrymae and Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, provided a nice contrast and went very well, having a sharpness of focus and considerable intensity.  The former found a compelling rhapsodic feel and was dazzling at the end; the latter was notable for the clarity of its contrapuntal lines. I thought the two concluding works might have benefitted from explicit conducting.  Ehnes’ violin playing in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was up to its usual pristine standards but having to conduct at the same time made for results which were seemingly less intimate and less rhapsodic than they might be. There were some lovely moments in the solo part but the orchestral balances seemed off at times, and the ensemble did not always pick up on the flow of the work, undermining its full magic.  The rendering of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was a bit of an extravaganza, probably appropriate for an opening night but a bit rough-hewn and untamed for my liking. With a massive string section, violins and violas all standing, it was unclear how Ehnes would be able to keep everyone together from his seated position in the string quartet.  Certainly, the ensemble mustered passion and drive aplenty but the melancholy in the tender subsidiary themes tended to be dwarfed and there were times where the ensemble was not rhythmically exact. While the audience seemingly reveled in the passion of it all, this performance was doubtlessly a bit of an experiment: it needed to bring out a better balance of inward expression, and this may necessitate a conductor.

The second concert also turned out to be a bit of an extravaganza with the presence of a massive screen hanging right over the orchestra, designed to project images of the ‘planets’ for Holst’s famous masterpiece at the end. This idea was sourced from the Houston Symphony – but seemingly good fun for a heterogeneous festival audience. I would be remiss however to not mention the damping effect of the screen on the sound, removing overtones from the brass and making the strings smoother than they sometimes are (a benefit?).  Fortunately, nothing could stand in the way of the collaboration of Ehnes and Bramwell Tovey in Walton’s estimable Viola Concerto (1929, rev. 1961), which was particularly well-prepared and yielded a glowing outcome. It is still uncommon for violinists to feel comfortable with the viola (though I do recall Mehuhin, Kennedy and Vengerov taking on this concerto), yet it was fully redeeming to find that Ehnes plays the viola with all the poise and dexterity of the smaller instrument, with a lovely silken fabric that reaches fully down to the lower strings.  Even for a life-long violist, it would be difficult to find a more beautiful sound than this.

Ehnes displayed lovely sheen and line in the opening melancholic musings of the Andante commodo, moving patiently to augmented rhythmic energy. This was a particularly well structured development, and the attentiveness of Tovey’s conducting was notable. Ehnes’ attack and dexterity in the more insistent passages really mirrored his agility on the violin, but it was his balancing of these moments of intensity with the pervasive lyricism of the movement that stood out. The short Vivo movement possessed all the bustling zeal and wit that it should and Ehnes made its challenges look easy, fashioning remarkably quick, light bowing. The long closing Allegro poses many hurdles as it covers such a range of material and progresses almost modally. Again everything cohered well, finding consistent life in the composer’s rhythmic syncopations and, most important for the viola, cultivating a sensuality and wonder in the lyrical line.  I also enjoyed the fleeting allusions to the later Violin Concerto.  After a finely-judged and moving epilogue, I firmly felt that there have been few performances of the work that combine the poise, strength and feeling contained in this one. Ehnes will make a recording with Edward Gardner in June of this year.

In Holst’s The Planets, the sharp visual images of all the planets were intriguing and probably deserve close study, but I must admit that it was difficult to take in both the images and the music. Part of the problem was that the images were projected at a methodical (often slow) pace whereas the music has more moment-to-moment volatility.  Another is that there is clearly a ‘human’ face in Holst’s work while most of the images are disembodied. Furthermore, crystal clear images seem to work against the sort of mystery that the composer likely intended; I might have preferred considerably more haze. But there was ingenuity involved in coordinating things: assistants armed with a score had to propel the images in line with the conductor’s chosen tempo – maybe an art form in itself. As to the musical dimension, Maestro Tovey seemed to give a fully creditable reading, starting from a broad tempo in the Mars and exposing the power and spectacle of the music throughout.  It was not the most tender performance one might find, and I thought the quiet sustained passages were sometimes not distilled enough, but it is difficult to make a full judgement with the screen and images present.  One thing that was never in doubt, however, was the sensitivity of Nicholas Wright’s violin solos.  This was his first concert after being chosen as the VSO’s next concertmaster.

Though not venturing very far off the beaten track, I enjoyed these two nights of English celebration, wonderfully enhanced by James Ehnes' contributions. The second concert actually opened with Gavin Higgins’ Velocity, a very skilled, wake-you-up piece originally commissioned by the BBC to start ‘The Last Night of the Proms’.  The last concert of this festival featured Maestro Tovey’s version of that defining event.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017