Sunday, January 9, 2011

Music feature: Violinist Ehnes, Toronto SO launch tour of Florida

Violinist James Ehnes.


By Greg Stepanich

The‭ ‬promoters of this week‭’‬s‭ ‬Toronto Symphony‭ ‬concerts might not have noticed it,‭ ‬but‭ ‬the program and its presenters make up something of an international accord between the two big federal republics of North America.

So says James Ehnes,‭ ‬a violinist‭ ‬from Manitoba and a dual citizen of Canada and‭ ‬the‭ ‬United States who now calls Brandenton home.

‭“‬It‭’‬s kind of a nice,‭ ‬friendly international token,‭”‬ Ehnes said.‭ ‬“A Canadian orchestra,‭ ‬with a Canadian conductor and a Canadian violinist‭ ‬who happen to live in the States.‭”

Ehnes,‭ ‬who turns‭ ‬35‭ ‬later this month,‭ ‬is one of the finest‭ ‬violinists‭ ‬of his generation,‭ ‬and he‭’‬ll add to the diplomatic amity by playing the Violin Concerto‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬14‭) ‬of Samuel Barber,‭ ‬one of the greatest of American composers,‭ ‬in his appearances Tuesday‭ ‬and‭ ‬Wednesday‭ ‬with the‭ ‬Toronto.

‭“‬It‭’‬s‭ ‬a great piece,‭ ‬and as far as performing it,‭ ‬it shows off‭ ‬the‭ ‬violin so beautifully,‭ ‬for all of the violin‭’‬s virtues,‭”‬ he‭ ‬said.‭ ‬“It has these beautiful melodies that are so well-suited for the instrument,‭ ‬and‭ ‬it‭ ‬has lots of virtuoso fireworks as well.‭”‬

Conductor Peter Oundjian also will lead the Toronto in a major Russian masterwork,‭ ‬the Fifth Symphony‭ (‬in E minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬64‭) ‬of Tchaikovsky,‭ ‬along with a contemporary Canadian work,‭ ‬Torque,‭ ‬written for the orchestra in‭ ‬2009‭ ‬by the‭ ‬Toronto-born‭ ‬composer Gary Kulesha.‭ ‬Ehnes and the‭ ‬orchestra appear Tuesday night at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬and Wednesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Ehnes has‭ ‬a large discography‭ ‬of‭ ‬more‭ ‬than‭ ‬20‭ ‬CDs‭ ‬that‭ ‬includes standard works‭ ‬– his‭ ‬newest disc,‭ ‬out this month on the Onyx label,‭ ‬features the‭ ‬Mendelssohn Concerto and the‭ ‬same‭ ‬composer‭’‬s‭ ‬Octet‭ ‬– and‭ ‬unusual ones‭ ‬that‭ ‬he said‭ ‬“keep my appetite fed,‭”‬ such as‭ ‬Second and Third concertos of Max Bruch,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬Tartiniana of the Italian modernist‭ ‬Luigi Dallapiccola.‭

He‭’‬s played‭ ‬the Barber concerto many times and recorded it,‭ ‬and he‭ ‬defends‭ ‬the‭ ‬composer‭ ‬and his concerto‭ ‬from charges that his work was unfashionably conservative.‭

“It‭’‬s‭ ‬kind of a miraculous piece.‭ ‬The way that it‭’‬s put together,‭ ‬the proportions of‭ ‬the‭ ‬piece,‭ ‬are very‭ ‬unusual but work beautifully,‭”‬ Ehnes said.‭ ‬“Barber,‭ ‬who I think for many years was criticized for being old-fashioned harmonically,‭ ‬is in this work extremely progressive formalistically.‭ ‬I think it‭’‬s a fascinating combination of‭ ‬elements.‭”

Ehnes grew up in Brandon,‭ ‬Manitoba,‭ ‬as the son of American immigrants who had moved to the province for job‭ ‬reasons‭ ‬and ended up‭ ‬staying‭ ‬40‭ ‬years,‭ ‬he said.‭ ‬His talent for the violin declared itself early,‭ ‬and‭ ‬by age‭ ‬11‭ ‬he had won first place in the Canadian Music Competition‭’‬s string division,‭ ‬and two years later‭ ‬made his debut with the Montreal Symphony.‭ ‬He is a graduate of the Juilliard School,‭ ‬and last year received the Order of‭ ‬Canada.

The bulk of the music Ehnes plays is standard repertory,‭ ‬but he‭’‬s pleased to see works such as the Walton Violin Concerto‭ (‬which is on the same disc as his Barber recording‭)‬ make more appearances on concert programs.‭ ‬But he‭’‬s bothered by‭ ‬another‭ ‬trend:‭ ‬the steady abandonment of once-staple Romantic‭ ‬showpiece‭ ‬repertoire such as Eduard Lalo‭’‬s‭ ‬Symphonie Espagnole and the concertos of composers such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski.

And then there‭’‬s Pablo de Sarasate,‭ ‬the‭ ‬19th-century Spanish virtuoso whose‭ ‬Carmen Fantasy and‭ ‬Zigeunerweisen used‭ ‬to be played‭ ‬everywhere.‭ ‬While‭ ‬Zigeunerweisen turns up on solo recitals frequently,‭ ‬it‭’‬s not often heard anymore on orchestral‭ ‬programs,‭ ‬as Ehnes discovered‭ ‬during‭ ‬some concerts he did‭ ‬in the‭ ‬summer of‭ ‬2008‭ ‬with the New York Philharmonic.

‭“‬In the program‭ ‬… they list the last performance‭ [‬by the orchestra‭]‬.‭ ‬And how many concerts do they give a year‭? ‬It‭’‬s hundreds.‭ ‬And‭ ‬they had not played‭ ‬‘Zigeunerweisen‭’‬ in‭ ‬40‭ ‬years,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬“Ten or‭ ‬15‭ ‬years ago,‭ ‬I would‭ ‬get asked a fair amount to play the‭ ‬‘Symphonie Espagnole‭’‬ or‭ ‬a‭ ‬Wieniawski‭ ‬concerto,‭ ‬and that music is just really out‭ ‬of favor right now,‭ ‬which is a shame,‭ ‬because I think it‭’‬s beautiful music that deserves more credit than it gets.‭”

He sees this as part of a‭ ‬“disconnect‭”‬ between what promoters think audiences want and what they actually want,‭ ‬and‭ ‬added that‭ ‬the trend is more acute in bigger cities,‭ ‬where recital programs have to have weighty‭ ‬canonical‭ ‬works‭ ‬rather than lighter pieces.‭ ‬“If‭ ‬it‭’‬s not by Brahms or Beethoven or Mozart,‭ ‬it‭’‬s just not serious,‭”‬ he said.

‭“‬I‭’‬m not saying Wieniawski was a‭ ‬composer‭ ‬of the importance of Liszt,‭ ‬but I‭’‬ll certainly say that‭ ‬[with‭] ‬the Liszt First Piano Concerto‭ ‬and‭ ‬the‭ ‬Wieniawski Second Violin Concerto,‭ ‬there‭’‬s no good reason that one is considered a masterpiece and the other is considered junk,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬“That‭’‬s‭ ‬just‭ ‬ignorance and snobbery.‭”

Ehnes,‭ ‬who is married to‭ ‬ballet dancer Kate Maloney,‭ ‬said he‭ ‬loves living in Florida,‭ ‬where one of his hobbies is vintage car restoration.‭ ‬And while his loyalties to both of his nations are firm,‭ ‬he is passionate about Canada‭’‬s contribution to the arts,‭ ‬which he said well outpaces‭ ‬its‭ ‬citizen‭ ‬numbers.

‭“‬In the music world,‭ ‬it‭’‬s‭ ‬amazing how many musicians are Canadians,‭ ‬for just not a very big country in terms of‭ ‬the‭ ‬population,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬“There‭’‬s a very strong culture‭ ‬there,‭ ‬and‭ ‬that‭’‬s something that Canadians to a certain‭ ‬degree are proud of,‭ ‬and should be even more proud of.‭”‬

Small in population,‭ ‬but large in territory,‭ ‬and one of the great unifiers of its people was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‭’‬s classical music service on Radio‭ ‬2,‭ ‬he said.‭ ‬It underwent a controversial‭ ‬change in‭ ‬2008,‭ ‬when most of its classical broadcasting was cut in favor of pop,‭ ‬jazz and other kinds of music.

Ehnes decries the‭ ‬switch,‭ ‬arguing‭ ‬that‭ ‬artists now heard‭ ‬regularly‭ ‬on the CBC station,‭ ‬such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen,‭ ‬have plenty of‭ ‬other‭ ‬outlets where their work‭ ‬can be heard.

‭“‬The CBC was of paramount importance to exposing people across the country to‭ ‬classical music‭ ‬… I grew up in a town of‭ ‬35,000‭ ‬to‭ ‬40,000‭ ‬people‭ ‬… and it could not have supported a classical music station.‭ ‬But we had the CBC,‭”‬ he said.‭

Things have changed.‭

“Classical programming has been cut dramatically,‭ ‬to the point where it‭’‬s very difficult for‭ ‬anyone‭ ‬to be able to hear classical music as a young person,‭ ‬because the only classical‭ ‬programming is during school hours,‭”‬ Ehnes said.‭ ‬“And that‭’‬s the‭ ‬thing that I think could have lasting ramifications.‭ ‬If you‭’‬re not exposed to it,‭ ‬you‭’‬re simply not going to know that it‭’‬s there,‭ ‬that it‭’‬s an option.

‭“‬And I think in our world today,‭ ‬people‭ ‬are losing sight of what‭ ‬music‭ ‬can bring to a‭ ‬society.‭ ‬We‭’‬re in a world of background music now,‭ ‬and people just don‭’‬t listen the way they used to.‭ ‬So I guess it‭’‬s only to be expected that the powers that be are going to‭ ‬start to‭ ‬lose sight of how‭ ‬important‭ ‬music can be in‭ ‬people‭’‬s everyday lives.‭”

Ehnes added:‭ ‬“The CBC was such‭ ‬an amazing‭ ‬cultural jewel for Canada for so long,‭ ‬and‭ ‬it brought‭ ‬something‭ ‬to everyone‭ ‬across‭ ‬the country.‭ ‬It was‭ ‬something‭ ‬we all shared together.‭”

Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The Toronto Symphony,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬went through a‭ ‬period of‭ ‬tumult about‭ ‬10‭ ‬years ago when labor disputes came to a head,‭ ‬but in more recent years the ensemble has been recording budget surpluses.‭ ‬Oundjian took over leadership of the orchestra in‭ ‬2004,‭ ‬and his contract has been extended into‭ ‬2012.

Ehnes said he first played with the orchestra about‭ ‬15‭ ‬years ago,‭ ‬and since then has soloed regularly with them and‭ ‬gotten to know‭ ‬many‭ ‬of its players well.

‭“‬Peter Oundjian has become a good friend over the past few years.‭ ‬He was someone I grew up admiring as a violinist,‭ ‬and‭ ‬it‭’‬s been a real pleasure getting to know him better and‭ ‬working with him‭ ‬as a conductor,‭”‬ he said.

The Toronto Symphony‭’‬s current tour in Florida is its first since‭ ‬1999.‭ ‬It‭ ‬begins tonight at the Naples Philharmonic Center in Naples,‭ ‬and ends Jan.‭ ‬15‭ ‬at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach.‭ ‬Ehnes,‭ ‬who will play all five of the Mozart violin concerti‭ ‬with the orchestra in Toronto the week‭ ‬after that,‭ ‬said the group‭ ‬“is at the top of their game.‭”

“I‭’‬m excited on their behalf to‭ ‬have the opportunity to show‭ ‬audiences‭ ‬in Florida that they are a major player out there,‭”‬ he said.‭ ‬“They‭’‬re going to do the country proud.‭”

***

James Ehnes and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will appear at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday at the Broward Center,‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬and at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Wednesday in the Kravis Center,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Tickets for the Broward performance range from‭ ‬$35-$90.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬954-462-0222‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.browardcenter.org.‭ ‬Tickets for the Kravis performance start at‭ ‬$25.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬832-7469‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.kravis.org.

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