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What were Handel and Beethoven doing in the final concert of the 21C Festival, the Royal Conservatory’s festival of contemporary music? The five-day festival, in its third very successful year, had featured the avant-garde in each of its seven previous concerts. Composers from Canada and beyond were performed and celebrated.

Today in 21C’s final concert live-streamed to the world from Koerner Hall via the internet, the new was effectively juxtaposed with the old. Handel and Beethoven were sandwiched between Canadian composers Carmen Brayden and Bramwell Tovey along with American composers James NewtonHoward and Aaron Jay Kernis.

Violinist extraordinaire, James Ehnes and his collaborative pianist Andrew Armstrong were the featured artists. Ehnes decided to tour his home country, Canada with his young family in celebration of his 40th birthday. Although turning 40 in January, Ehnes thought the better of a winter tour waiting until May in hopes of more favourable weather in the north. Nevertheless, stops in Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Banff, and Halifax produced a ‘different’ version of spring as he commented in his remarks from the stage. Even Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.5 in F major, Op.24, nick-named the “Spring Sonata”, performed as one of two major works at each stop along the way, couldn’t stop the snow, sleet and hail experienced in several of their northerly stops. But today was different. With temperatures hovering in the high 20’s outside the fabulous Koerner Hall, spring came inside with two marvellous performers and an extremely appreciative audience.

The program opened with Handel’s Violin Sonata in D major, Op.1, No13, HWV371. A familiar work to most students of the violin, it is a bright and lively piece of Baroque music at its finest, with beautiful lyrical movements between two energetic allegros.

Next came two truly 21C works. Brayden, a composer from Yellowknife whose works have been performed by many of Canada’s leading musical ensembles, learned last fall that Ehnes and Armstrong would be performing in her home town. She reached out to them and wrote Magnetic North specifically for their tour. The work is a remarkably accessible study of the power of magnets to attract, repel, and to move as does the magnetic north pole itself.

Concluding the first half was a stirring piece by American Aaron Jay Kernis entitled Two Movements (with Bells). It was a moving memorial to his father and included references to the jazz his father was so fond of. The bells tolled in the piano’s dissonant chords that in places, provided the work with a funereal quality.

The second half of the concert opened with a fast, short, humorous, and virtuosic gem by James Newton Howard, simply entitled 133…At Least, the tempo marking of the piece. It was followed by the Beethoven, which gave most of the audience the music they really came to hear. Playing together for 10 years, including three occasions in Koerner Hall, Ehnes and Armstrong have developed an unsurpassable cohesion in their interpretation of Beethoven. Today’s “Spring Sonata” was played with energy, balance, impeccable musicianship, and breathtaking lyricism.

The program concluded with Bramwell Tovey’s dramatic Stream of Limelight.  It depicted the extreme range of expression required of stage performers in an era before modern lighting effects when bright chemical ‘limelights’ did little to enhance performances. Ehnes has a long relationship with Tovey dating back to their days in the late ‘80s in Manitoba but was Ehnes’ first time performing one of Tovey’s works.

The audience called twice for encores and marvelled at the acrobatic performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee and Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction et Tarantella.

New music, old music, it didn’t seem to matter to the audience. It was great music played by two truly remarkable musicians. James Ehnes will be back in Toronto next week performing Elgar’s Violin Concerto on June 9th, 10th and 11th with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

JAMES EHNES and ANDREW ARMSTRONG, masters of the old and the new

Review by David Richards

May 29, 2016

James Ehnes  ​Photo by Benjamin Ealovega