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Review: New concerto was written for powerhouse violinist — and he delivered

17th March, 2017

James Ehnes underscored his reputation as one of today’s finest violinists with the U.S. premiere of the new Aaron Kernis Violin Concerto on Thursday evening — the first of three Seattle Symphony performances. Lengthy, complex and assertive, the new concerto demands almost superhuman agility and stamina of Ehnes, the soloist for whom it was written, and he rose to the challenge.

He is well known as a player who can make his violin do anything, but even Ehnes must have been taxed by the dizzying array of double stops, complex fingerwork and incredibly speedy passages throughout the instrument’s compass.

The new concerto is a huge work, scored for so many instruments (including a full complement of brass) that even the most assertive soloist would have to work hard to be heard. Conductor Ludovic Morlot did a fine job of balancing the instrumental forces, though inevitably Ehnes’ solo line was occasionally covered by the sheer density of the scoring.

Dotted with cadenzas that put the soloist back in the forefront, the concerto demonstrated Kernis’ command of the complete orchestral palette, from cataclysmic brass passages to otherworldly solo harmonics over hushed strings. He made imaginative and inventive use of percussion, harp and tuba. And in the wildly eclectic third movement, Kernis pushed the soloist toward the frontiers of technique, with double-stop runs and a final cadenza so scarily difficult that audience members were gasping in disbelief.

The concerto was jointly commissioned by the symphony orchestras of Toronto, Seattle, Dallas and Melbourne; its world premiere was given earlier this month in Toronto. The concerto and Ehnes’ solo performances were the result of grants from private individuals — Patricia Tall-Takacs and Gary Takacs, and Dana and Ned Laird — along with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’ll be interesting to chart its progress after the four premieres: one must wonder who else is able to play the concerto. It may become an irresistible challenge as a proving ground for those who dare.

There could hardly be a greater programming contrast than the dulcet Debussy and serene Beethoven works that preceded and followed the bravura concerto. The opener, Debussy’s “Cortege et Air de danse” (from “L’enfant prodigue”), got a graceful performance of shimmering textures and some elegant flute solos from Jeffrey Barker. (This work replaced the previously announced Debussy “Printemps.”)

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 6) gave audience members (and the orchestra) a chance to relax a bit and catch their collective breath after the pulse-pounding concerto. Morlot kept the performance of this familiar classic light and fleet, creating a lot of contrasts in the dynamics. The woodwind solos, complete with chirping birdsong, were effective, and despite a few uneven entrances, the orchestra was in good form.

 

17 March 2017
Melinda Bargreen / The Seattle Times