Brott Summer Festival: James Ehnes Plays Mendelssohn reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, June 14, Hamilton

Felix Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” began life as a collaboration of prodigies. The composer was sixteen and had already written eleven symphonies and his Octet Op. 20, when he met the fifteen year old violinist Ferdinand David. Some years later, Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, chose David as his concertmaster and began thinking of writing a concerto to showcase the talents of his friend. Some time later, Mendelssohn conducted the première of his concerto with David as soloist.

Last night, at the opening of the 20th Brott Summer Music Festival, two Canadian prodigies, conductor Boris Brott, and violinist James Ehnes collaborated in a performance of the “Concerto” that was memorable for its sheer pleasurableness. Ehnes’ work contributed to our pleasure by a sensitive attack supported by control and a thrilling purity of tone. Brott has a remarkably nurturing personality: he pleases by the effortless authority of his just-so conducting, and by beaming a sense of happiness with his players, soloists and orchestra alike.

The National Academy Orchestra of Canada that Brott founded almost twenty years ago is the nest from which hundreds of Canadian musicians have launched successful professional careers. For example, the concertmaster, Robert Uchida, is now concertmaster of Symphony Nova Scotia. The NAOC’s associate conductor, Martin MacDonald, recently was appointed Resident Conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia. Congratulations.

MacDonald opened this evening’s concert conducting Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No 3, Op. 72b.” Under his baton, the orchestra gave a very convincing performance of the energetic, triumphal passages of this work. After the solemn introduction that dragged a bit and suffered initially from creaky brass and wind work, MacDonald guided the smooth ascent towards the ‘Overture’s’ magnificent concluding crescendo.

Maestro Brott took the podium and led Beethoven’s “Symphony No.4 in B-flat major, Op. 60” with a firm hand, bringing a lively, lyrical experience out of this classical, Haydnesque work, and marking it with his own attractive sense of playfulness. I particularly enjoyed the rounded, rolling, flowing winds in the exposition of the ‘Adagio’ as well as the concluding flute solo ornamented with horns and timpani.

The highlights of this exhilarating evening came from the virtuosity of James Ehnes. Within the general excellence of his playing, my recollection of the ‘cadenza’ dwells on the rich range of the tones issuing from his instrument: whisker thin bowings ‘sul ponticello’ and gritty double stoppings. His tremolos, spell-binding in their articulation, contributed much to the high contrast sense of drama. Also, one remembers the tenderly singing tones as Ehnes takes up the theme of the darker ‘Andante.’

Since this review began with a nod towards the idea of musical friendships, I conclude by agreeing with a musical friend of mine who believes that the only thing equal to a good performance of a new musical work is a great performance of an old work. Just so.

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