Violinist James Ehnes, a young, lanky fellow who resembles Van Cliburn, presented a fine program in Fletcher Opera Theater on September 23. He's Canadian, and he's rapidly making his mark in music. His accompanist was Eduard Laurel, a Texan. Ehnes plays a lovely Strad, pictures of which - along with the artist's bio - are at http://www.bright.net/~hhelser/ehnes.html [inactive 11/04]. The concert was given on the NC Symphony's Great Artist Series.
The works performed included scores that are not all that well known nowadays but that continue to be much loved by violinists. The evening got underway with Christian Sinding's attractive Suite "In the Old Style," and the first half included Fauré's appealing First Sonata, one of the French master's most accessible - and demanding - compositions. The title of the first work suggests that it was somewhat old fashioned, even when it was new, and indeed the entire program seemed a throwback to the heyday of great violin virtuosi. That Ehnes pulled it off with aplomb says much about his training, his talent, and the warm response of the enthusiastic audience in the half-filled hall.
In the first part, the piano sounded duller than usual, heard from the right rear of the main floor. This could have been the instrument, or it could have been the somewhat dark accompaniment of the Sinding and some of the Fauré, or it could have resulted from the fact that Fletcher's stage is huge and needs a shell. In any event, we shifted up, to the balcony, for the rest of the concert, and the sound there was much brighter and fuller - but mechanical noise, not heard downstairs, intruded on some of the softer passages.
The second half began with Bach's famous Chaconne, which received a stunning and revealing interpretation. Ehnes is a refreshingly no-nonsense player. He planted his feet and played, and all the emotion was in the music. This alone sets him apart from the party-time fiddlers whose presence on the circuit so often make mockery of the art by shifting attention from the music to the performer. Ehnes, on the other hand, stands and delivers. Bravo! (As it happens, Triangle music lovers will have a second shot at the Chaconne when Gary Graffman plays Brahms' left-hand transcription of it on October 26 - in Fletcher Opera Theater.)
Smetana's "From my Homeland," two short encore-type pieces, proved to be welcome in programmatic terms, since the music is rarely heard. Wieniawski's Variations on an Original Theme is of slight musical merit, but it provides a marvelous vehicle for a skilled violinist to strut his stuff, and Ehnes worked it over thoroughly, breathing as much life into it as he could. The result was dazzling playing, and the audience clearly loved every minute of it, recalling Ehnes and Laurel repeatedly - five times, indeed - ; and eliciting a single encore, Sarasate's "Malaguena," which was enveloped in musical magic, like everything else.
The Great Artist Series' printed programs, always weak links in this high-ticket operation, have been folded into the NCS' fall and winter program book, but there are still no notes, and, except for an announcement of the encore, there were absolutely no comments from the stage.