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TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and JAMES EHNES: a combination extraordinaire

James Ehnes, Peter Oundjian and the TSO,  ​Photo by Emma  Badame

Review by David Richards

June 12, 2016

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented its final concert of the ‘Decades Project’ series last night at Roy Thomson Hall. Since September, the TSO has presented a themed series of concerts based on the first two decades of the 20th century. The last four programs have focused on the second decade: the period of the First World War, the Titanic and the Russian Revolution. Composers R. Strauss, Ives, Janáček, Nielsen, Granados, Ravel and Webern have all been featured.

Last night’s concert, the final in the series, highlighted Edward Elgar and Igor Stravinsky. The evening included two very contrasting works, a pre-concert chamber performance, and a post-concert party with a duo performing popular Canadian war-time music from the same decade.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto looks back in time to the age of Romanticism. Its soaring lyricism is interwoven with a turbulent troubled soul, both reflective of the Romantic period. James Ehnes, Canada’s violinist extraordinaire was completely in sync with the TSO brilliantly conducted by music director Peter Oundjian. This concerto was far from new for Oundjian or Ehnes. It is a staple of the repertoire and one that Ehnes has recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Last night Ehnes grabbed hold of the audience with his lyrical entrance following the extended orchestral introduction and never let go. His virtuosic passages were intense. The sound of the harmonics from his Stradivarius were angelic and the energy of the work was sustained throughout.

Ehnes has been celebrating his 40th birthday this year with a tour of Canadian cities and towns over the past six weeks. He has been to Iqaluit and Yellowknife as well as many cities in Western Canada. In the fall, he will take his tour to Eastern Canada. He was in Toronto last week for a solo recital and returned for this week’s concerts with the TSO. This listener can’t get enough of Ehnes’ playing. A review of last week’s concert at Koerner Hall is on this website.

The second work on the program, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, by contrast with the Elgar, looks forward in time with its complex and experimental tonalities and rhythms. It simultaneously looks to the distant past to pagan Russia for its inspiration. The pulsating metre depicts a ritual around the coming of springtime. Originally a ballet score for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, its riotous premiere performance in Paris in 1913 has given way to great acceptance as a concert piece over the years. Oundjan conducted the enlarged orchestra of about 100 players with all the energy demanded by the score. The result was a thunderous performance that reached down through this listener’s core in a physical, emotional and spiritual sense.

The evening began with a pre-concert performance of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat in its concert version by The TSO Chamber Soloists made up of seven principals of the orchestra. The work is based on a Russian folk tale with similarities to the Faust story and ends with the Triumphal March of the Devil. Andrew McCandless (cornet) was at his virtuosic best in each of the three marches. TSO Concert Master Jonathan Crow should be congratulated for his wonderful performance in the Three Dances.

The Toronto Symphony will next perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman along with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ on June 15th and 16th, 2016 at Roy Thomson Hall. TheTSO Chamber Soloists will perform the complete Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky at 7pm on Saturday June 18th 2016 at the Hearn Generating Station as part of the Luminato Festival.