If there were a Nobel Prize for violin, I would nominate James Ehnes. His playing of Britten’s Violin Concerto with the Toronto Symphony was drenched with emotions – pathos, irony, lamentation, sarcasm, tenderness and bliss – displayed and at the same time bounded by the discipline of his virtuosity, that like a diamond, radiated brilliance without attracting attention to itself.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Ehnes’ recent recording for Onyx of Britten’s concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony conducted by Kirill Karabits was widely and rightly celebrated, but last night’s performance with the TSO, guest-conducted by Stéphane Denève, surpassed it in my opinion. It was the conductor who made the difference. Denève chose to rearrange the strings, moving the second fiddles away from the first to the opposite side of the stage in the usual places of the cellos and basses. This arrangement increased the overall contrast and sharpness of the entire ensemble, particularly enhancing the brass and percussion. Denève has a way of tailing off phrases and leaving a little silence between them that also tweaks the overall contrast of the orchestral picture to the benefit of the soloist.

Ehnes is also a study in contrasts, in that while his violin weeps, or skylarks to sul ponticello heights, or scatters sprays of pizzicati, or scrapes broken bursts of single- and double-stopped zigs and zags, or skitters up and down scales both melodic and dissonant, his demeanor never changes, his posture never abandons discipline. Only his instrument speaks. One finds oneself bathed in the pleasure of the specific emotions Britten’s music invokes with a general sense of also being buoyed by admiration of the boundless talent Ehnes shares. For the most serendipitous moment of unimaginable pleasure in this performance, I would choose a passage midway through the second movement where the flawless whistle of Ehnes’ violin merged invisibly with the voice of the piccolo. In fairness, though, the last word must go to Britten and his concerto, which has attained the status of a classic – meaning in performance after performance, its every phrase can renew the promise of deep appreciation, and the whole brings the listener to a sense of well-earned peace.

By contrast to the Britten “classic”, another work from the British Isles received its Canadian première: “Three Interludes from The Sacrifice” (2007), an opera by Scotland’s “greatest living composer”, James MacMillan. The music reflects the pagan mythic theme of a clan divided by competition between two brothers for one fair lady, her true lover sacrificing his claim for the sake of peace in the family, and the failure of that peace when the sacrificing brother assassinates his seven year old nephew on the day he is to be crowned as a symbol of the united community. The three interludes rumble roughly through aggressive dances, display the general paranoid flutters of weird horn and bassoon pierced by alarms of piccolo, disintegrating drums and keening strings. There is plenty of drama, but the colouring leans too much towards Las Vegas. The work also lacks a lubricating sense of humour, which it might have had if the composer were Osvaldo Golijov. But, at this point in time, MacMillan’s “Three Interludes...” is not my candidate for the classics.

Maestro Denève then refreshed what is arguably the greatest classic of all time – Beethoven’s Eroica. H.L. Mencken was “convinced that the most portentous phenomenon in the whole history of music was the first public performance of the Eroica on April 7, 1805.” What makes this symphony great is that Beethoven stares into the abyss of “the inscrutable meaninglessness of life”, and finds within himself music to express the strength to keep on going.

The score cycles many times through a succession of moods: a dancing, pastoral contentment expressing the familiar pleasure of being alive in basically good circumstances; the darkening tones of trouble on the horizon – brooding music of impending illness, bad luck, or the advent of historical forces; the demonic march of power on the move towards conquest, be it Napoleon or his opponents; the subsequent and inevitable marche funèbre that is the second movement exploring both the public and private faces of grief. The scherzo is Beethoven’s new symphonic expression for the energy of personal resistance to melancholy. The final mood in the sequence is a sense of triumph in which the triumph of the individual just edges out the triumph of the systemic power. All these moods cycle through each movement until Beethoven has exhausted the variations they create in our life.

While Beethoven’s score has the potential to bring these variations to life and into meaning, it rests with the orchestra and the conductor to make it happen. The Toronto Symphony is a fine instrument, built over a long time, that has been brought into refinement by Peter Oundjian. His friend Stéphane Denève, with his gift for subtle contrasts, brought the music of Beethoven into an unusual brilliance.