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music: concert review

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

  • James Ehnes, violin
  • Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Thursday

On Thursday evening, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and music director Peter Oundjian played Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky and more Tchaikovsky.

Such a concert carries with it the temptations of emotional excess – of wallowing in romantic extravagance and artistic indulgence. Yet that's certainly not how events unfolded, for a variety of reasons.

The most obvious reason was James Ehnes, on hand at Roy Thomson Hall to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

At 35, the Brandon-born violinist is a card-carrying virtuoso. But at the same time, he's not the kind of virtuoso who cultivates the knack of making everything look easy.

On the contrary, there's an intensity in Ehnes's furrowed brow that doesn't disguise the fact that playing demanding music with great sensitivity is actually a very hard thing to do. At the same time, there's so much conviction in every note he plays that there's never cause to fear that any challenge will get the better of him.

Similarly, he's not the kind of soloist who gives the impression that he's spontaneously creating the music as he plays it. Ehnes's approach to interpretation is calculated and sure-footed – and that's how it sounds.

And so it went with the Violin Concerto: From his first entry, Ehnes was deeply absorbed in the music. His performance was fleet-fingered and purposeful, and his Stradivarius (the "Marsick" violin of 1715) soared in the hall. (It helped that Oundjian made the TSO a discreet yet solid presence throughout the concerto.)

The first-movement cadenza was a flawless display of technique and structural insight, ending with a high trill fluttering prettily over the orchestra.

In the second movement, Ehnes entered with a whisper, and maintained a "less-is-more" approach to the music's expressive potential. The result was like a welcome breath of fresh air.

However, so precise and methodical was the outpouring of notes from Ehnes's violin in the third movement that his coolness became downright chilling. Nevertheless, this finale was powerful – a fitting conclusion to an interpretation more high-minded and serious than this concerto sometimes receives.

After the concerto, Ehnes was generous with his encores, playing two Paganini Caprices, Nos. 24 and 16. True to form, he treated these as real music, rather than just showpieces – even as he displayed a brilliant technical command.

More Tchaikovsky followed, with the orchestra. And while these performances didn't suffer from emotional excesses, they suffered in other ways. Ironically, there was sometimes too little emotional engagement happening on stage.

The chief characteristic of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, which opened the concert, was its strong rhythmic emphasis. However, this was achieved at the expense of the music's festive effervescence.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (the "Little Russian") began with a fine solo from principal hornist Neil Deland – but then problems started to emerge. In the first movement, it seemed as though Oundjian was armed with some very strong ideas about where he wanted the music to go – but had to struggle with his orchestra to make it go there.

The second movement fared better, with nice legato playing from the orchestra. Unfortunately, the third movement's tricky rhythmic problems were not entirely solved.

In the fourth movement, the TSO's brass section stepped up and injected some much-needed excitement into the performance. Their enthusiasm proved contagious, and the movement ended in a blaze of glory.

The TSO had an encore of its own up its sleeve: the waltz from Aram Khatchaturian's Masquerade, performed with a welcome burst of alacrity. If only the whole concert had been played with such spirit.

The program is repeated on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Special to The Globe and Mail