Ehnes’ elegant Beethoven highlights Grant Park program

Thu Aug 20, 2015 at 1:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James Ehnes performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
James Ehnes performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Of all the great concertos written for violin, Beethoven’s sole entry in the genre is the most difficult to pull off. Any reasonably well-equipped soloist can handle the notes and balance the lyricism and sturm und drang of concertos by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Yet Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major seems to require something more—a philosophical expansiveness allied to an emotional intimacy that go beyond mere virtuosity and the ability to float a melodic line.

Beethoven’s concerto was the main work on Wednesday night’s Grant Park Orchestra concert, performed by soloist James Ehnes with conductor Carlos Kalmar, opening this final week of the Grant Park Music Festival season.

The Canadian violinist is an undeniably first-class artist as he showed once again, with playing that was supremely polished and immaculate throughout.

Ehnes’ elegant style and the pure, silvery tone of his “Marsick” 1715 Stradivarius often seem best suited to music of Bach, Mozart or Mendelssohn. At times in the long opening movement one wanted greater dramatic edge and more intensity to the solo passages. Kalmar’s taut, sharp accompaniment showed what was fitfully missing, in the robust attacks and firmer bite.

Yet in the Larghetto Ehnes was fully in the zone. His strikingly beautiful playing conveyed the serenity and searching rumination of this elevated music, the violinist exploring an array of half-tones and nuanced expression, with equally sensitive support by Kalmar and the orchestra.

The Rondo finale provided the requisite payoff with Ehnes’ springy rhythmic bounce in synch with the high spirits, rounded off with an explosive burst of fiddle bravura in the final cadenza. Ehnes received an immediate hug from his conductor and an extended, enthusiastic ovation from the audience.

Like so many great American composers of the mid-20th century Howard Hanson’s music has been shot out of the canon in recent decades due to timid programming and too many music directors of American orchestras who feel little responsibility to perform American music.

Not so Carlos Kalmar, who opened the evening with Hanson’s Elegy to the Memory of My Friend, Serge Koussevitzky. Hanson’s 1955 homage to the Russian conductor, one of his main advocates, is fully characteristic of the composer from Wahoo, Nebraska. In its broad lyric sweep and sturdy Midwestern integrity, Hanson manages to convey a touching, noble valedictory expression without a trace of sentimentality. Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra gave a rich-toned and fully committed performance.

One doesn’t think of Magnus Lindberg as a frustrated stand-up comedian, but his Aventures, heard in its North American premiere, closed the evening on a whimsical note. After a grand, Olympian fanfare, the Finnish composer is off on a 12-minute mashup of celebrated themes from Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Ives, Prokofiev and Sibelius. This is an enjoyable if slight romp, yet Lindberg’s fluency raises it above mere jokey pastiche. Kalmar ensured that all the fleeting musical quotations emerged distinctly and the Grant Park musicians served up Lindberg’s confection with all due energy and humor.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom, with soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, tenor Garrett Sorenson, and bass-baritone Brian Mulligan. This final program of the Grant Park Music Festival season takes place 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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