The Shang Emperor of China had inscribed on his washbasin the admonition “Make it New”.

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega
James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 2012/13 season made it new by including in its first-night program a work by a living composer, Harmonielehre by the American John Adams. Maestro Peter Oundjian’s bold decision succeeded in pleasing the audience when Harmonielehre was performed after intermission, thus vindicating Oundjian’s vision seven years ago when he instituted a New Creations module into the yearly program.

The concert opened normally with seven minutes of Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino. From the first bars of the “fate” motif, played propulsively by the strings, through the dramatic themes that follow – especially the wistful lyric prayer from the second act with its lovely oboe solo – one felt a new energy in the orchestra. The ensemble’s sound had a burnished precision such as one associates with the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor showed considerable daring by bracketing passages with prolonged rests, that heightened the sense of drama.

Oundjian introduced the evening’s soloist as “Our beloved James Ehnes”, an appropriate epithet for the Grammy, Gramophone, Juno and RPS award-winning violinist. Mr. Ehnes gave an outstanding performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major.

The orchestra’s bravura sweep through the Allegro’s introduction is finely detailed. The violin enters with a dramatic flourish like whorls of water. Ehnes’ evident technical brilliance opens into a more organic dimension, into a thrill of birdsong.

Brahms’ writing, despite his collaboration with violinist Joseph Joachim, makes soloist and orchestra more into a partnership than a virtuoso display: the orchestra picks the violin’s winding melody up and and takes it sighingly stepwise over pizzicato strings, then into a downward spiral, setting the stage for the next solo. One feels the conductor’s direction, firm and brisk, at every turn.

Mr. Ehnes’ manner is also classical: sincere, but with restraint. He inclines more toward Heifitz than Menhuin or Oistrakh. Within the general excellence of his playing, my recollection dwells on his rich tonal range – from whisker-thin bowings sul ponticello to gritty double-stoppings. His tremolos, spellbinding in their articulation, contributed much to the sense of drama. If there were moments of dissatisfaction it was that in quiet passages the violin seemed to fade into the orchestra, and that may have been an acoustic limitation of Roy Thomson Hall.

While Mr. Ehnes appears restrained, the music he makes is saturated from a wide palette of emotions: his cadenza, taken at speed, but seated squarely in purity of tone, is as much about imagination as it is about virtuosity. His technical brilliance that unfurls with the precision of a Fibonacci spiral, brings a new kind of gentleness into the music, a tender warmth, an intimacy with all living things. This emotionality also works its way through the rhapsodic variations of the Adagio, especially the lengthy lullaby for solo oboe over horns and winds which Ehnes augments with the richness of his violin’s timbre. The finale, Allegro giocoso, dances in gypsy modes popular in Brahms’ time that modern audiences still enjoy in the melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Orchestra and soloist perform this hybrid rondo/sonata form in a musically spectacular and heart-lifting fashion.

The audience expressed unbridled satisfaction and was rewarded with an encore from the core of James Ehnes’ art: the Gigue from the Violin Partita no. 2 by J.S. Bach.

After intermission came Harmonielehre (1984), John Adams’ ironic homage to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 book of the same name. Adams’ three-movement work for orchestra rejects as “twisted and contorted” Schoenberg’s atonal techniques, and instead integrates the harmonic world of Mahler, Sibelius and Debussy with modern minimalist techniques.

Adams’ composition is a brilliant, loud, deep and exciting work orchestrated for 2 tubas, 5 percussionists, 2 harps, 5 trumpets, piano, celeste, and full orchestra. It was performed last night in a way that continually set and exceeded expectations.

The three movements are very different. The first explodes then sinks into lovely incremental repetitions of minimalist sonic waves mingled with late-Romantic harmonies, some festive as a sleigh-ride, some outrageously grand like a dirigible floating over Hannibal’s army complete with elephants negotiating the Alps. The second movement meditates on the dissonant distress of incurable disease. An excellent trumpet elegy is followed by a surprising tumble of timpani and tubas that conjures a calamitous presence dissolving in a narcotic flood. One marvels at the imaginative unity of purpose here among composer, orchestra and conductor. The final movement is a promise, sounding like melted ice falling in droplets where green shoots break the sunlit earth amid the chatter of sparrows.

This was an evening of music to “soothe the savage breast”.