An Intriguing Spring Festival with James Ehnes as Violist and Conductor

CanadaCanada VSO Spring Festival I: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / James Ehnes (violinist/conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 22.4.2017. (GN)

VSO Spring Festival II: James Ehnes (viola), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 24.4.2017. (GN)

James Ehnes © Matthew Baird
James Ehnes © Matthew Baird

VSO Spring Festival I:
Elgar – Serenade for Strings in E minor Op.20; Introduction and Allegro for String Orchestra Op.47
Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; The Lark Ascending
BrittenLachrymae Op.48a: Prelude and Fugue for Eighteen Strings Op.29

VSO Spring Festival II:
Walton – Viola Concerto (1961 version)
HolstThe Planets Op.32

The Vancouver Symphony’s Spring Festival had an English theme this year, and what better way to send off the first two concerts than with the participation of Canada’s stellar James Ehnes. The novelty was that he didn’t bring just his violin: he also brought his viola – to play Walton’s Viola Concerto – and his baton – to conduct a medley of well-known British string works. For many, this would have been the first time they saw the violinist extend his talents so widely. Be assured that not all of Ehnes’ conducting was from the podium; a good deal of it was from the leader’s position. On opening night, he showed both enthusiasm and a fine ear for balance as a maestro, though there were undeniably hits and misses. The performance of the Viola Concerto (with Bramwell Tovey conducting) on the second evening was a tremendous success, showing that Ehnes can get the same beguiling beauty and sculpted line out of the larger instrument. This concert ended with a performance of Holst’s The Planets – aided and abetted by full screen visuals.

The highlight of the first concert was Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia which Ehnes explicitly conducted. This had a particularly fine control of texture, and carried well through all its engulfing string projections. Ehnes found passion and sweep in the massed strings, but he was always careful to bring out the contrasting stillness in the piece, particularly in the quiet organ-like passages for winds and bass pedal and in the string quartet interludes; the control at the very end achieved the right feeling of mystical expanse. Elgar’s always-popular Serenade for Strings was not quite as spontaneous in feeling. The balance and refinement in the playing were admirable, but the caution in Ehnes’ approach meant that it did not open out the work’s full yearning and ardour. The catchy jogging rhythmic figure in both opening and closing movements was too dominant, and they should have had more varied presentation. There is doubtlessly both sensitivity and enthusiasm in Ehnes’ conducting, though some may think that his technique of using both arms (hands) synchronized together needs refinement.

The smaller pieces by Benjamin Britten, Lachrymae and Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, provided a nice contrast and went very well, with a sharpness of focus and considerable intensity. The former found a compelling rhapsodic feel and was dazzling at the end; the latter was notable for the clarity of its contrapuntal lines. I thought the two concluding works might have benefitted from explicit conducting. Ehnes’ violin playing in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was up to its usual pristine standards but having to conduct at the same time made for results which were less intimate and less rhapsodic than they might be. There were some lovely moments in the solo part but the orchestral balances seemed off at times, and the ensemble did not always pick up on the flow of the work, undermining its full magic. The rendering of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was a bit of an extravaganza, probably appropriate for an opening night but a bit rough-hewn and untamed. With a massive string section, violins and violas all standing, it was unclear how Ehnes would be able to keep everyone together from his seated position in the string quartet. The ensemble mustered passion and drive aplenty, but the melancholy in the tender subsidiary themes tended to be dwarfed, and there were times where the ensemble was not rhythmically exact. The audience seemed to revel in the passion of it all, but the performance was doubtlessly a bit of an experiment: it needed a better balance of inward expression, and this may necessitate a conductor.

The second concert also turned out to be a bit of an extravaganza with the presence of a massive screen hanging right over the orchestra, designed to project images of the ‘planets’ for Holst’s famous masterpiece. This idea was sourced from the Houston Symphony – but good fun for a heterogeneous festival audience. I would be remiss, however, to not mention the damping effect of the screen on the sound, removing overtones from the brass and making the strings smoother than they sometimes are (a benefit?). Fortunately, nothing could stand in the way of the collaboration of Ehnes and Bramwell Tovey in Walton’s estimable Viola Concerto (1929, rev. 1961), which was particularly well-prepared and yielded a glowing outcome. It is still uncommon for violinists to feel comfortable with the viola (though I do recall Menuhin, Kennedy and Vengerov taking on this concerto), so it was redeeming to find that Ehnes plays the viola with all the poise and dexterity of the smaller instrument, with a lovely silken fabric that reaches fully down to the lower strings. Even for a life-long violist, it would be difficult to find a more beautiful sound than this.

Ehnes displayed lovely sheen and line in the opening melancholic musings of the Andante commodo, moving patiently to augmented rhythmic energy. This was a particularly well structured development, and the attentiveness of Tovey’s conducting was notable. Ehnes’ attack and dexterity in the more insistent passages really mirrored his agility on the violin, but it was his balancing of these moments of intensity with the pervasive lyricism of the movement that stood out. The short Vivo movement possessed all the bustling zeal and wit that it should, and Ehnes made its challenges look easy, fashioning remarkably quick, light bowing. The long closing Allegro poses many hurdles: it covers such a range of material and progresses almost modally. Again everything cohered well, finding consistent life in the composer’s rhythmic syncopations and, most important for the viola, cultivating a sensuality and wonder in the lyrical line. I also enjoyed the fleeting allusions to the later Violin Concerto. After a finely-judged and moving epilogue, I felt that there have been few performances of the work that combine the poise, strength and feeling contained in this one. Ehnes will make a recording with Edward Gardner in June of this year.

In Holst’s The Planets, the sharp visual images of all the planets were intriguing and probably deserve close study, but I must admit that it was difficult to take in both the images and the music. Part of the problem was that the images were projected at a methodical (often slow) pace whereas the music has more moment-to-moment volatility. Another is that there is clearly a ‘human’ face in Holst’s work while most of the images were disembodied. Furthermore, crystal clear images seem to work against the sort of mystery that the composer likely intended; I might have preferred considerably more haze. But there was ingenuity involved in coordinating things: assistants armed with a score had to propel the images in line with the conductor’s chosen tempo – maybe an art form in itself. As to the musical dimension, Maestro Tovey seemed to give a fully creditable reading, starting from a broad tempo in the Mars and exposing the power and spectacle of the music throughout. It was not the most tender performance one might find, and the quiet sustained passages were sometimes not distilled enough, but it is difficult to make a full judgement with the screen and images present. One thing that was never in doubt, however, was the sensitivity of Nicholas Wright’s violin solos. This was his first concert after being chosen as the VSO’s next concertmaster.

Although they did not venture far off the beaten track, these two nights of English celebration were enjoyable on their own terms and wonderfully enhanced by James Ehnes’ contribution. The second concert opened with Gavin Higgins’ Velocity, a very skilled, wake-you-up piece originally commissioned by the BBC to start ‘The Last Night of the Proms’. The final concert of this festival featured Maestro Tovey’s own version of that defining event.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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