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A Toronto's tale on two Romantics

Roy Thomson Hall
05/30/2007 -  and May 31st* 2007
Antonin Dvorak: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op.53
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op.73

James Ehnes (violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek (conductor)

It was a concert thoroughly to the taste of the general public, which on so radiantly fine a spring evening at the Roy Thomson Hall points forth for pleasantry and enjoyment to some of the best-loved late-Romantic repertoire.

Dvorak’s Violin Concerto is the typical large-scale Romantic virtuoso concerto, boasting in brilliant instrumental articulation, fascinating in expression, and original in its form. More rhapsodic than any of its genre’s counterparts, the Concerto lacks the usual long orchestral tutti passages. The highly exposed concertant violin is perceived as the protagonist of the orchestra. This conception is put on paper by making the presence of a solo cadenza entirely superfluous, and Dvorak establishes this vision by joining the first two movements in an uninterrupted whole, establishing the very basis to the character of this music. The slow movement brings lyrical violin music at is purest. This is an amazingly beautiful, wide-breathed, impassioned song luring straight from the depth of Czech-folk inspirations. The pristine message of happiness and well-being is reminiscent as it echoes through each musical phrasing. The finale is formally a slow rondo, with a folk-inspired, dance-like principal idea that circulates with a charming and contrasting episode in which Dvorak elaborates into five variations. Here, Dvorak elevates the music into a dramatic dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, highly elaborated sequences that eventually return into a rondo presented with the principal subject. This work tests not only for the soloist’s execution on technical abilities, but above all, it is a musical masterpiece that renders the soloist to discover the novel facet of this work’s inner beauty.

In sight of this, James Ehnes (see here), the violinist, does all honour to his fellow Canadians: he too appeared most modestly – already a well-respected star in the international scene of young violinists. He gave a performance entirely at the service of the work without becoming too pallid, and what a tone that melts almost effortlessly. His violin tone is round, gentle, never hesitant; the timbre warm with technique that is brilliant and natural. Each phrasing flowed with natural spontaneity, with pianissimo that finished to the likeness in the softness of a feather. But above all, Ehnes is a champion in his musical diction and articulation that triumphs like the Everest from his first bow till the end. As musically challenging a piece as Dvorak‘s, we have a strong and passionate personality in Ehnes, whose musical interpretation promises only to be an enjoyable one.

Brahms’ Symphony No.2 was composed in a flurry of inspiration following the heels of the First in no less than a year in 1877. Here, the melodies flow so freely that one must be careful not to tread on them, and this is most evident in the first thematic element of the introduction. Here, the main theme of the first movement, characteristic by its triadic arpeggiation, rhythm and 3/4 time, recalls affirmatively the main theme to Beethoven’s Eroica. The music first opens with an extreme darkening and standstill, casting a long shadow ahead over the entire movement. In an important letter Brahsm wrote on the Second Symphony, Brahms himself referred to the state of melancholy as a signature hallmark to this composition. The second movement echoes this mood in a demanding, expansive Adagio with a grand cantilena, adhering to the overall expressive atmosphere. Paradoxically, then, comes light to resolution, in a relatively short third movement. Finally, there is the closing movement, not a “Finale” in the rhetorical sense of the symphonic form, but more fittingly, it is a joyful Kehraus (lit. “last dance”). The entire symphony is clearly divided into two polar halves in a spectrum of expressive qualities: two melancholic movements resolved by two serene movements. Brahms may inadvertently transform the melancholic state of mind into a serene view of the world. Nevertheless, the balance is never equaled; the third and the fourth movements are glaringly “lightweighted” compared with the profoundities introduced from the first two. Quantitatively, as well as qualitatively, the Second Symphony seems curiously “top-ranked” amongst his four others. Nevertheless, this dilemma is to be handed over to the ear and mind of tonight’s musicians and their audience to truly discover.

Jiri Belohlavek (see here) is an elegant, exquisite authority on the Brahms this evening, and a wise ruler of the orchestra he commands. Rather than an aversion, he is fully reserved, not too blatant with endings in movements and posture. Throughout the piece, he draws back appropriately, instead of letting his men and women storm forth too enthusiastically. Belohlavek is an objective conductor, if, by that, one means his precision on orchestral details. But, Belohlavek is also a Romantic when it comes to combining the manifold details within the field of tension in true symphonic form, as we heard in tonight’s Symphony. He has the chosen music at his fingertips, without the aid of any scores, but he will never show off. A lithe, full, transparent orchestral sound such as that achieved by Belohlavek may now seem entirely natural, but as a conductor who popularizes us to this sound, and who reveals total, absolute and enthralling passion should not be allowed to fade from the minds and memories of today’s generations of musical lovers. He is truly a sensitive, natural musician to the core.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (see here), finally: we know it best as our Orchestra. This time, they proved to be a compelling force: they were the equals to the top as masters of their instruments, inclining more to contrast than to parallels. In particular with the Dvorak Concerto, here the players showed a sheer vernacular agreement over tone-colour, instrument construction, phrasing and musicality. From Dvorak to Brahms, folklore-infiltrated style “à la Tchèque” to Viennese high- and late Romanticism, we audience experienced a Romantic concert by inspired musicians. And rightly so, the response in the audience was tumultuous and prolonged.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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