Violinist James Ehnes performs Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the ASO and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. (credit: Rand Lines)

Review: James Ehnes soars in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Mark Gresham | 08 NOV 2019

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, performed a concert of music by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles and featuring Canadian violinist James Ehnes. The program will be repeated this Saturday evening, again at Symphony Hall.

The program opened with the Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141, by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was his last Symphony, written during the summer of 1971 – a quirky, enigmatic work, full of the composer’s signature wit and sarcasm but also a pathos, despair and sense of personal suffering he felt in the latter part of his life. Allusions to the works of other composers abound – Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Wagner, and especially Rossini’s William Tell Overture – in addition to his own music, making it also a somewhat cryptic, semi-autobiographical work.

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The first movement was originally subtitled “The Toyshop,” evoking a childhood naiveté which becomes corrupted, ahttering any presumptuion of actual innocence. Two strokes on a glockenspiel and a a solo flute passage is based upon a five-note motif representing the name of the composer’s gransdons, Sascha – S (E-flat), As (A-flat), C, H (B-flat), A in German notation – introduce the movement’s brightly-colored, enigmatic sonic atmosphere. The slow second movement, which opens with a chorale in the brass alone, and organ-like effects later on, also includes a passage for solo celesta that is imitated by vibraphone and string harmonics in the cellos.

The Allegretto third movement isn’t called a scherzo but might as well be one, given its humorous character, while the final movement shifts back and forth between Adagio and Allegretto, concluding with a long pedal point in the strings ovrlaid with a kind of toccata for an array of percussion, the movement at last closing quietly in A major with an orchestration so similar to the beginning of the Symphony that we might well wonder if we’ve come back around to where we began, fated to start it all over again.

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After intermission, James Ehnes took the stage as soloist in the ever-popular Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Written in 1878 it is one of the best-known and frequently performed concertos in the violin repertoire. Unlike the much less familiar Shotakovich Symphony, we need not elaborate on a detailed description here.

Ehnes nailed it, and it was not a run-of-the-mill performance by either soloist or orchestra. Donald Runnicles drew forth an exceptional, insightful performance from the ASO that felt – dare I say it in this age of gender-neutralizing age – very masculine in phrasing and articulation, handling of tempos, shaping of the whole. It was very much an inspired, emotionally forward-moving performance that refused to coast its way through the familiar score. If you were not a Thursday’s concert and can go Saturday, it’s definitely a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that you should not miss.  ■