Ehnes provides stellar advocacy for Kernis concerto with Dallas Symphony

Fri Apr 07, 2017 at 3:21 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

James Ehnes performed Aaron Jay Kernis’s Violin Concerto Thursday night with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by Gustavo Gimeno. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Violin Concerto, still hot off the press after a premiere in Toronto last month, sprawled across 25 minutes of dense orchestration and relentless virtuosity Thursday night in a performance by soloist James Ehnes and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Gustavo Gimeno.
The first movement, titled Chaconne, opened with an explosion of percussion; Kernis clearly has no qualms about pitting a large, packed orchestra against a violin soloist, and Ehnes had no problem holding his against the large ensemble including full entourage of brass, wind, percussion, and keyboards.
The element of stately variation generally associated with the genre is not immediately evident in Kernis’s Chaconne movement; still, the first movement is packed with engaging ideas, and, in the opening section, Kernis successfully creates the aura of urban energy reminiscent of mid-20-century American symphonic composition. A Paginini-esque cadenza continues the soloist’s workout, and a surprisingly calm episode leads up to a humorous closing cadence, capped off with a single, soft, pizzicato note from the soloist.
Ehnes, for whom the work was written, enters again, quietly, in the second movement, titled “Ballad,” for an atmospheric, almost Delius-like exercise; this is interrupted by a mildly aggressive middle section, with another etude-like cadenza before drifting away dreamily. The final movement, titled Toccatini (a new term combining toccata and martini, according to the composer’s note), also blasts off with breathless passagework for the soloist against a gradually broadening orchestral accompaniment. A reprise of a Paganini-style etude and a humorously good-natured section (including an imitation of train whistle) brings this most compact of the three movements to a close.
Not surprisingly, Ehnes and the orchestra were clearly unfazed by the relentless technical demands of the work.  The absence of ear-catching lyricism in this concerto will definitely count against it as a candidate for the permanent repertoire, in spite of the healthy christening ahead with multiple performances by major orchestras and a flawless, clearly dedicated soloist.
The program, initially created for music director Jaap van Zweden (who withdrew from the concert, citing family issues) provided, at least theoretically, a solid foundation for the presentation of the new work, with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture to open and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony to close. And the placement of these two powerful revolutionary statements on either end of the same program was, on paper, an excellent idea. However, guest conductor Gimeno, bulldozed through the Beethoven, rendering the work’s quick, compact climax meaningless.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony certainly contained some engaging moments in this performance. The orchestra was in fine form technically throughout, and Gimeno created a clear sense of ominous urgency in the quieter passages. However, his tendency to go full throttle at the slightest opportunity—at one point in the first movement allowing a repetitive percussion motif to drown out a significant theme in the brass—ultimately destroyed this work’s momentum. The Allegretto second movement, a swift but pungent folk dance, became brutally heavy-footed; and, while the Largo had some beautifully delicate moments, poor balance undermined the heartbreaking momentum of Shostakovich’s enraged Finale.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerson Symphony Center.; 214-692-0203.

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