Rather than ending their 95th season with the monumental ninth symphonies of Beethoven or Mahler (both featured earlier in the season), conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra chose instead to present a kaleidoscopic programme of Britten, Elgar, Berlioz, and Respighi entitled “Romans and Britons”. Throughout the evening the orchestra was on flawless form, sounding tighter and more brilliant than I’ve ever heard them.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

This was shown off to great effect in the two pieces that opened each half: Britten’s Passacaglia from Peter Grimes (the titular Britons) and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture (the Romans). The Passacaglia, taken from Act II of Peter Grimes, can be an odd choice to open a concert – more an interlude than a stand-alone overture or entr’acte; it also can be a rather depressing note on which to start a concert. However, it provided a wonderful showpiece for orchestral colour, from the hushed lower strings to the appropriately biting winds and brass. Similarly, the Berlioz was a lesson in virtuosity, and provided a boisterous contrast to the first half of the concert. Particularly notable was the famous cor anglais solo, played with great warmth and lyricism. Both pieces were performed with an excellent sense of drama and pacing, befitting their operatic origins.

More somber, but no less impressive, was Respighi’s ever-popular Pines of Rome. Though technically a tone poem, it is symphonic in its scope and carries far more power than its 21-minute length would suggest. Less obliteratingly loud than usual, Tovey chose to emphasize the atmospheric aspects of the work. This was, of course, most effective in the second movement, with the catacombs suitably evoked by the lower brass. Throughout the piece, in fact, it was the brass that impressed most, from the off-stage trumpet solo to the full section at the end of the fourth movement. The ending, complete with trumpets and trombones in the balcony, provided a thrilling end to the evening that left the audience delighted and overwhelmed.

However, it was Elgar's Violin Concerto that was the true heart of the evening, and what most of the audience had come to see. James Ehnes has long been a Vancouver favourite, returning nearly every year and having played the Brahms, Korngold, and Tchaikovsky concertos recently. Unlike those concertos though, the Elgar is famously difficult to pull off – at 50 minutes, it is structurally analogous to the Brahms or Beethoven concertos with a 10-minute cadenza and coda added on at the end. Despite its notable technical demands, it is distinctly not a virtuoso concerto and requires immense artistic maturity and stamina. Following a somewhat unsettled first movement in which tempi were rather more varied than usual, Ehnes gave a powerhouse performance. His playing was technically flawless throughout, including the intricate third movement which was performed faster and cleaner than I’ve ever heard it before. More importantly, Ehnes has the full spectrum of colour and dynamics needed to turn the concerto into a true artistic experience. Tovey and the orchestra played with true symphonic energy and richness, but allowed their soloist to be heard throughout. Ehnes returned to give a breathtaking beautiful encore of the Andante from Bach’s second solo violin sonata, and later joined the orchestra at the back of the first violins for the Berlioz and Respighi – no wonder he is such an adored artist in Vancouver!

A true tour-de-force from a beloved Canadian artist, an orchestra on sparkling form, and an imaginative, vibrant programme – what better way to close a season?