The Vancouver Symphony leads off its digital concert season with James Ehnes

CanadaCanada Bach, Beethoven: James Ehnes (violin/director), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Orpheum Theatre and Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 16.10.2020 and now streaming. (GN)

James Ehnes (violin/director) & Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Bach – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor BWV1041
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major Op.92

Unlike the orchestras of the world’s musical capitals which have many celebrated musicians to draw upon, it has been more challenging for Canadian orchestras to come up with an interesting digital concert season as travel restrictions have blocked the appearance of most international soloists. Fortunately, there are great artists in Canada, and it was a cause for celebration that violinist James Ehnes could lead things off in the first of his two play/direct appearances with the Vancouver Symphony this fall. Ehnes contributed Bach’s A-minor Violin Concerto, while Music Director Otto Tausk and the orchestra resumed the Beethoven celebration that was so abruptly terminated in March with his Symphony No.7.

The constraint of social distancing was dramatically evident in the Beethoven: new construction had extended the stage of the Orpheum Theatre over the first rows of seats to facilitate the protocol. Even then, there was room for only about 40 players. The blown instruments performed on one side of a large circle, with masked string players on the other side and the (masked) conductor standing in the middle of it all, having to turn in both directions. It perhaps gave new meaning to the term ‘spatial music’. To top it off, each work was done in a different venue (the Bach was in the smaller Christ Church Cathedral). Nonetheless, there was something special about the presentation beyond all the planning involved. Just like one might recall descriptions of 1940s wartime concerts – where emotions were so clearly on the line – so one felt a similar spirit here: the musicians were demonstratively grateful to be able to play together again and to perform music they loved so much.

Feeling sprang from the Bach concerto. The approximately twenty VSO string players were really on their toes, and Ehnes was absolutely committed. The Allegro was nicely scaled, and the ensemble secured a fluent, light motion that I found very attractive in style. The violinist was superb at cutting the texture, bringing out the strength and contrast in his lines and maintaining architectural command. The slow movement was lovely: Ehnes achieved such heartfelt beauty in his explorations over the recurring ostinato bass, securing the most poignant pianissimos later on. Yet I did not find this ‘romantic’ Bach: it was the purity of expression that stood out, and the sparser instrumental textures reinforced its sublime reach. The buoyant finale put a fine seal on it, finding élan and joy to take us all home.

Otto Tausk (conductor) & Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The freshness of this performance was engaging, and it seemed that Ehnes was more uninhibited and expressive with a mask on than he sometimes is (with mask off). Obviously, the greatness of the music was carrying the musicians – and so it should. From a play/direct perspective, I thought this was an accomplishment too, finding good detail and a sense of natural motion within an acceptable ‘modern instruments’ Baroque style. Perhaps it was only in the finale where slight traces of orchestral heaviness set in, and if there was one thing I might have wished for, it was that I could hear the harpsichord continuo more distinctly.

Given the sheer distance between the players, the Beethoven was more of an adventure. Sometimes I wondered how the instrumentalists could hear each other, and at other times how the conductor could conduct in two directions at once. From a sonic and visual perspective, one could certainly focus more on the individual instrumentalists, but the tonal integration of the orchestral whole was more difficult to glean. Perhaps the only unfortunate thing about performing Symphony No.7 was that Tausk had played it in 2018, and it was one of the best efforts of his debut year. That concert displayed a tight-knit integration and surety of line while incorporating aspects of authentic style (review click here). The current effort mimicked the previous one in many ways, but it was understandably more ‘spacious’, fostering greater soloistic detail but also a more relaxed ambience overall. Given the difficulties of conducting the dispersed group, one had to regard it as a valiant effort.

The opening movement was appealingly balanced and well-sprung, and this was probably the closest movement to the earlier performance. It was interesting to watch all the horn and trumpet interjections coming from behind the conductor while he was facing the strings. Those who liked Roger Cole’s (authentic) oboe ornament later in the movement in the earlier outing might be delighted that it has become almost a full cadenza now. Tempos were slightly slower. The big differences came in the middle movements, which had more coaxing rustic colour and easeful grace than previously.

This may have not been coincidence: the one-off VSO digital airing in late March (without audience but with conventional orchestra seating) was Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. And both the Allegretto and the Scherzo of the Seventh seemed to inhabit this world. Rather than aiming at the grave or burdened, the former was much lighter and often serene, the affectionate phrasing and colour sometimes even taking one to its predecessor’s ‘Scene by the Brook’. Instead of sharp insistence and abruptness, the Scherzo hinted at the frolic and bucolic delight of the earlier work’s ‘Peasant’s Merrymaking’. The Pastoral Symphony’s overall feeling of natural bounty and Thanksgiving might have been singularly appropriate for this occasion, but there is clearly quite a distance between Beethoven’s Op.68 and Op.92. I am not sure this interpretative slant yields the most enduring rewards. The finale was mainly unexceptional, perhaps slightly too metrical at points and (understandably) less molten than it usually is, but certainly sufficient to cap off the evening in a satisfying way.

Overall, this concert was an impressive and innovative effort. The video transfer was of high quality, and one got into the spirit of the performances easily.

Geoffrey Newman

For information on the VSO streaming service click here.

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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