Not until the morning of the day before their concerts this week with the Seattle Symphony did conductor and soloist meet for the first time, yet the shared sympathy and depth of understanding they together brought to their interpretation of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 made this the richly satisfying highlight of the Seattle Symphony’s program.

James Ehnes © Ben Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Ben Ealovega


The occasion represents both a debut and a homecoming. This marks the German conductor André de Ridder’s first time at the Benaroya Hall podium. The violinist James Ehnes, by contrast, has for years been a familiar figure in town as a regular performer with the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. Ehnes took over the reins as artistic director of that enterprise several seasons ago; earlier this year he launched the inaugural European tour of his Ehnes Quartet following an electrifying performance in Seattle of Bartók’s String Quartet no. 3.

Indeed, Bartók’s music itself seems to suggest a kind of spiritual home base for Ehnes, whose recordings of that composer’s string concertos and works for violin and piano (all on Chandos) have earned considerable acclaim. Ehnes reports having commenced his journey with the second concerto at the ripe age of 15, and the sense of limitless discoveries still waiting to be mined in this score contributed to the riveting spell he cast throughout last night’s performance. Aside from some disequilibrium in the solo orchestral balance in the first minutes of the piece, that sense was similarly conveyed by de Ridder and the orchestra, with notably fine collaboration between Ehnes and principal timpanist Michael Crusoe in the first of the slow movement’s sequence of variations. Each of these was like the opening of yet another set of doors in Duke Bluebeard’s castle — full of surprise and mystery, gleaming secrets carefully unveiled for our inspection.

Ehnes played with his customary poise, spectacularly unruffled even in the immensely taxing cadenza, which deepened the impression in the first movement of a bardic protagonist telling an epic tale. He somehow maintained his patrician beauty of phrasing without dulling Bartók’s edges. This account crackled with intensity and passion but steered clear of melodrama and superficial effect, let alone sentimentality. De Ridder was particularly successful at eliciting the prismatic glints of Bartók’s orchestration and, in the finale, built excitement through his detailed control of dynamics. The instrument Ehnes played, the 1715 “Marsick” Stradivari, was constructed 224 years before the premiere of Bartók’s concerto, yet this music flowed from its historic body with natural, unforced expression.

Questions of chronology and style were prompted by Mozart’s Symphony no. 38 in D “Prague” from the “Figaro” year 1786, which filled the program’s second half. De Ridder, until 2012 the principal conductor of Sinfonia ViVA in Derby, is particularly known for his expertise in contemporary music and for his adventurous collaborations outside the classical sphere. He also seems well versed in the tenets of historically informed practice and aimed for a notably fleet but thoughtfully proportioned interpretation of the “Prague”, following Mozart’s requested repeats. Attacks were zestfully accented, with the timpani positioned next to the low strings on the right of the stage. Especially effective was the elaboration of a mood of suspense in the lengthy slow introduction. De Ridder’s feeling for the inherent drama of sonata form was delightfully palpable, even if his exaggeration of contrasts at times pointed ahead, as in the quasi-Schubertian shadings of the rather brisk Andante. Some wonderfully characterful phrasing in the woodwinds didn’t quite compensate for problematic ensemble and occasionally clogged transparency in the strings.

To open his program, de Ridder turned to another Prague connection, conducting Antonín Dvořák’s The Noonday Witch. Why do these late-period tone poems still suffer such neglect? De Ridder left no doubt as to the quality of these works, which shed significant light not just on Dvořák’s symphonic oeuvre but on the persistent clichés of his relation to Bohemian folk culture.  This piece, from 1896 (and premiered in London) is replete with innovative orchestral and formal ideas in its almost cinematic narrative style. Dvořák recounts the grim (and Grimm-like) folk tale of an “urban legend” — or whatever the rural equivalent is — that comes true, as the witch of the title is summoned by an exasperated mother, resulting in the death of her troublesome child.

Dvořák’s harmonic and structural disruptions undercut his ironically cheerful folk-tinged passages and foreground the ingenuity of the details of his scoring. De Ridder emphasized a thrillingly theatrical spectrum of sonorities that were as vivid as a 3D film — above all in the nail-biting pianissimo as the witch steals upon the scene.