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Review: Seattle Symphony Gives Premiere of Kernis’s Violin Concerto for James Ehnes

18th March, 2017

Benaroya Hall was virtually full for Thursday’s important concert—the premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, and composed for and dedicated to violinist James Ehnes, who performed it with the SSO. The program is repeated Saturday, March 18.

Ehnes is the much-admired performer at and popular artistic director of Seattle Chamber Music Society, with which he has been associated for 23 years. During that time he has risen to the top ranks of international soloists, and the reasons for that were evident Thursday.

Kernis composed the concerto along classical lines with three movements: the first a Chaconne, where the entire structure is based on a repeating series of chords, the second a slower Ballad, and the third a fast and showy Toccatini with a virtuosic role for the soloist.

The first impression of the half-hour work is how quintessentially American it is. Just as when listening to a lot of music one can tell without knowing the composer whether it is Slavic or French, German, Russian, or English, so there is an unmistakable American flavor here.

Kernis uses a harmonic language in the concerto which is atonal but not muddy. There is little melody one can hum. His writing is dense and complex but at the same time with enough transparency to hear inner lines. His deft use of instrumental color is abundant, often using the winds as foil for the busy violin, with plenty to discover in further listening.

The violin role is nearly continuous, with some moments when the orchestra takes over at full volume and the violin steps aside briefly. In an arresting start, the concerto begins with a loud drum bang and then another shortly after with growly brass and winds, the violin up front from the beginning with busy double stops (playing on more than one string at a time) all over the instrument against a cacophonous orchestra. But looking underneath there is far more to this than noise. While the violin goes from skittering runs at top speed to lyrical moments to a brief introspective solo, the orchestra under music director Ludovic Morlot is a full partner which supported rather than overwhelmed Ehnes.

The slow Ballad with strings and celesta with a lyrical violin on top gives way to a voluble and agitated Toccatina. Although in the notes Kernis mentions hints of Stravinsky and Messiaen in this movement, I heard some received heritage of Bernstein and Gershwin. Perhaps it was the brash ebullience, the in-your-face, can-do confidence in the last, fun movement. This is the most accessible of the three, partly due to its subtly jazzy elements and the splendidly varied percussion (which is evident throughout the  concerto), but the violin part is incredibly difficult and it never stops.

An adverse reaction to a difficult violin role on the part of the proposed performer of the premiere has happened more than once in the past. Leopold Auer refused to play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto saying it was too difficult. There were refusals by distinguished violinists to play Brahms’ concerto. Schoenberg was told that he would need a six-fingered violinist to play his, to which he replied, “I can wait.” The Kernis is at least as difficult or more so than these, but Ehnes performed it superbly.

Granted, violin pedagogy has changed immeasurably over the past century, but this has to count as one of the most challenging solo roles out there, and Ehnes was completely in charge of it. While the music called for him frequently to play on more than one string at a time, his intonation was impeccable, his tone warm, deep and smooth, never shrill on high notes, there was expression and emotion. Harmonics sang like bells.

The audience loved it. The orchestra applauded as enthusiastically as the concertgoers.

What to program with such a work? Morlot chose a short Debussy piece to start, not the one listed but an excerpt, “Cortege et Air de danse,” from his L’enfant prodigue, with a long expressive flute solo from Jeffrey Barker and a feel of rippling water such as Debussy evokes so well.

To end, Morlot programmed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” in which the orchestra and Morlot sounded as fresh as though they had previously been at rest instead of performing the demanding Kernis. In the entire program, the orchestra balance and togetherness was notable.

 

18 March 2017
Philippa Kiraly / The SunBreak