If the old saw “life begins at 40” is true, then the musical world is about to experience a cataclysmic event.
Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes proved Friday night in Overture Hall that at the age of 39, he has already well mastered the 1715 Stradivarius instrument he so easily wields. In his previous visit (2012, almost to the day) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Ehnes nearly fooled us into thinking that Bartok’s “Violin Concerto No. 2” was a lyrical vehicle, rather than the thorny 20th-century work it is usually assumed to be. But on this occasion (and gleeful to report, repeated Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30), Ehnes took a warhorse and shined it up like it belongs in the Violin Concerto Hall of Fame.
Certainly Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy deserves its ranking as one of the most popular of the second tier of works for violin and orchestra, but Ehnes takes it, as everyone seems to be saying these days “to the next level.” At face value, one could conceivably tire of the 19th-century German composer’s machinations with the Scottish tunes “Auld Rob Morris,” “The Dusty Miller” and “Scots Wha Hae.” But no one would trim Ehnes’ performance by a minute if it meant missing what he brought over and over again in technique that wasn’t simply pristine in the execution, but full of nuance and shadings of control both in dynamics and color.
It was a fascinating comparison to two weeks ago when 25-year old Ben Beilman dazzled us with a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Where Beilman is clearly on a path that has moved from prodigy to artist, Ehnes reveals the destination. The distinction was taken up a notch by Ehnes’ encore, the third movement of the “Sonata No. 2” of J.S. Bach–if not the same work that Beilman chose for his first encore two weeks ago, one strikingly similar. After witnessing Ehnes’ utter command vis a vis the dynamic of playing with a large orchestra (which reminds me: John DeMain did a great job of molding his forces to give Ehnes aural space for his expressions), we now witness the lone artist in a large hall, tenderly teasing the most subtle and beautiful inner lines from Bach’s fertile genius. To say that the audience held its breath (truly it was one of the most attentive audiences at an MSO concert in some time) is to state the obvious; Ehnes’ playing seemed to command that the walls of the hall itself lean in to soak up his every inflection.
The night opened with a rarity for the MSO, a Haydn symphony. Usually the purview of chamber orchestras these days, it is always welcome to see what scaled-down, but still larger, forces will do. DeMain employed about 45 players in Haydn’s “Symphony No. 85” (nicknamed by others “La Reine,” since it apparently was a favorite of Marie Antoinette). Good of DeMain to choose one of the Haydn’s less heard examples of the genre (compared to the last dozen of his 104), and not surprising to see that he shaped it with a sensitive hand. Flutist Stephanie Jutt brightened the second movement and took a deserved solo bow at work’s end, and the finale revealed some delightful orchestral colors that reminded one of trees whose leaves are just beginning to turn.
The second half of the night was another vehicle to give every section a chance to shine, Rachmaninoff’s final orchestral gem, “Symphonic Dances.” The opening movement is string-dominated to start, and the MSO players continue to show that consistency of blend and warmth that is now almost a trademark of the orchestra. The middle section remains one of the most remarkable stretches of woodwind writing in the repertoire, with a yearning saxophone solo (uncredited in the program–tsk, tsk, staff!), imaginatively countered by emerging answers from the oboes, clarinets, flutes and bassoons. DeMain took the only sensible interpretive approach for the stylistically anachronistic 1940 work, indulging with tempo fluctuations in the dreamy central section, and driving the outer sections. The then-67-year-old Rachmaninoff may have lived to see the outbreak of World War II and the rise of twelve-tone music, but his heart remained rooted in turn-of-the-century post-Romanticism.
As has been the case more often than not in recent seasons, the night left us wanting more. And we happily look forward to hearing what our wonderful ensemble might conjure next month in a French program, when they take the pit for Madison Opera’s “La Boheme.” Tickets may become a little harder to come by.