MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

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photo by James Holt

In last night’s Seattle Symphony concert led by Ludovic Morlot,  James Ehnes introduced a brand-new violin concerto written for him by one of today’s finest composers, Aaron Jay Kernis. This was the U.S. premiere; last week Ehnes gave the world premiere in Toronto (a co-commissioner with SSO).

Talk about making a great first impression! Despite — or even because of — its terrorizing challenges for the soloist, this is a concerto built to last: it’s so good and makes such an obviously satisfying contribution that I’d bet at least some of the more interesting virtuosos at work today will be intrigued to take it on.

I sometimes wonder whether we’ve been going through something of a concerto overload in recent years: too many composers relying on the supposedly built-in attractions of a structure that can feature a star protagonist while also benefiting from the color and horsepower of an orchestra (even if the latter is used merely for “atmospheric” painting rather than in a richer, symphonic way).

One of the many things that impress me about this new piece is that Kernis has really thought through the concerto idea and created something substantial and fresh without relying on esoteric novelties — without trying to reinvent the wheel.

In fact, an attempt at abstract description of the piece might make it sound almost old-fashioned, but it’s not. Like Brahms writing for Joseph Joachim (though Kernis himself studied violin as a youngster), he resorts (distantly) to Baroque forms in the outer movements — an intensely felt and gripping Chaconne for the first and a “Toccatini” (his play on the toccata) for the finale — with a soulful “Ballad” doing service as the aria at the center. And the profusion of little cadenza-islands amid the orchestral archipelago also underscores the concerto’s conventional identification with virtuoso prowess.

But Kernis animates all of these conventional elements with a marvelously contemporary spirit. The first two movements have deep emotional resonance, while the finale is so infectiously zippy (and outrageously hard to play) it leaves you with a buzz — a musical martini, as the composer jokes.

He’s often described as “eclectic,” but I don’t think that does justice to the distinctive personality Kernis conveys in his Violin Concerto. True, there are hints of, well, Brahms (in the emotional severity and fatalism of the first movement), Berg, Bach, Stravinsky for sure (in the finale), Messiaen (the wondrous tangles of sound in the “Ballad,” which is also cured with jazz and blues flavors). But instead of a random mishmash, Kernis amalgamates these idioms into a rich, compelling harmonic language and flow of ideas.

One could appreciate Kernis’s score on the level of its orchestral ingenuity alone: such interesting sounds and blends, which paradoxically erase the model of individual “versus” the orchestra — at least over long stretches of the piece. Paradoxically because, on the most obvious level, this concerto it is a virtuoso showpiece in the old school sense.

But with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium).

Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati,  it was like watching  a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes.

But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.

Again, this is all part of the extraordinary balance Kernis has achieved in his Violin Concerto, overriding binaries of dark/light, intense/carefree, Apollonian/Dionysian, “serious”/enjoyable.

Morlot — a big part of this success in the less obvious task of precision-engineering and calibrating Kernis’s complex orchestral apparatus — was a deeply  sympathetic collaborator in this premiere.

He opened the program with a youthful curiosity by Debussy from a student cantata (the “Cortège et Air de danse” from L’enfant prodigue). The second half brought Beethoven’s Sixth.

Morlot’s account of the Pastoral from several seasons ago has stayed with me as some of his best Beethoven. It’s fascinating to hear him continuing to develop his ideas of this piece. Connections between the movements (even between symphonies) emerged effortlessly — above all in the limber, serenely flowing string lines of the second and last movements, which were reminiscent of his vision of the Ninth’s slow movement at the beginning of the year.

Despite some ensemble untidiness, there was especially delectable work from the winds (Eric Jacobs’ clarinet as beguiling as the voice of Orpheus). Michael Crusoe’s timpani pulsed with dramatic thunder and lighting in a storm movement that sounded like a sketch for The Flying Dutchman: further evidence of the silliness of that persistent cliche about the “placid” even-numbered versus “revolutionary” odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies. Next week brings a further chance for comparison, when Morlot and the SSO close out their two-year Beethoven cycle with the mighty Fifth.

(c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Seattle Symphony, James Ehnes, review, American music, commissions, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot

Seattle Symphony Unveils a New, Custom Concerto

ajkernisMy latest for The Seattle Times: a preview of Aaron Jay Kernis’s new Violin Concerto for James Ehnes and the Seattle Symphony:

How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?

This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.

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Filed under: commissions, James Ehnes, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 35th Summer Festival

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Cynthia Phelps is a regular participant in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.

Tonight the 2016 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival begins, with James Ehnes and his colleagues fresh from a Beethoven quartet marathon in Seoul. My preview has been posted on the Seattle Times website:

“Chamber music is about being able to trust your colleagues,” says violist Cynthia Phelps. That’s what enables the risk-taking that’s essential for this intimate musical medium, she explains. “And the chance to live and work together during the Summer Festival is a wonderful model for building that trust.”

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Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Rekindle your spirits with Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival

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My preview of this month’s Winter Festival by the Seattle Chamber Music Society for the Seattle Times is now online.

Filed under: James Ehnes, preview, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Ehnes Quartet Review

Ehnes-Quartet

My review of the Ehnes Quartet and their Beethoven cycle from this summer’s Seattle Chamber Music Society Festival has been published in the current issue of String magazine. A link to it is here (pdf).

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society

An Unusual and Moving Evening at Seattle’s Summer Chamber Music Festival

Nicholas Phan

Nicholas Phan

New Bachtrack review:

The second week of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s month-long Summer Festival concluded with a programme that – as the two earlier concerts that week had similarly done – expanded perceptions of the notion of chamber music itself by including works that cross over the instrumental divide and call for voice.

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Filed under: Britten, chamber music, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Strauss

James Ehnes on His “Other” Life as a Chamber Musician

photo © Benjamin Ealovega 2012

photo © Benjamin Ealovega 2012

Here’s my piece for The Strad about violinist James Ehnes and his string quartet, who recently opened Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2015 Summer Festival:

James Ehnes has long been a familiar presence on the international circuit, but he remains known to many music lovers primarily as a solo violinist — a virtuoso who, armed with a stunning technique, also has something compelling to say. When he does appear in chamber programmes, it’s often been with a piano partner or in varying chamber formations.

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Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Chamber Seattle

This evening brings the opening of the month-long Summer Festival presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society. James Ehnes, director of SCMS, will be here with the Ehnes Quartet to perform a mini-Beethoven festival of three string quartets tonight, Wednesday, and Friday.

The YouTube sample here is of the Ehnes Quartet from their recording of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.

Later in the month (20 July) SCMS will present the world premiere of this year’s commissioned work: Cantus by the wonderful Steven Stucky (whose first opera, The Classical Style receives its first-ever full staging later this month at the Aspen Festival.

Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle’s Chamber Music Summer Festival: Review

James Ehnes; ©Benjamin Ealovega

James Ehnes; © Benjamin Ealovega

Tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of Memeteria. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t have the archives to the right to prove it — this year has been a whirlwind. A huge thanks to all my readers for taking the time to visit. I hope you will continue to come back and would love to hear from you.

And how’s this for unplanned synchronicity: my very first piece was a report on the opening of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival. And my latest offering is a review of one of the 2014 Summer Festival’s concerts. To wit:

For 33 summers now, the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) has been presenting an extensive festival that now ranks as a particularly desired destination for musicians on the summer chamber circuit across North America. This latest edition is off to an especially invigorating start. For their part, the audiences tend to be uniformly enthusiastic and devoted, but last night’s performances met with vociferous approval that reached the extreme end of the applause-meter.

The unusual programme design – juxtaposing Stravinsky’s infrequently heard Octet for Winds with bread-and-butter classics by Mendelssohn and Beethoven – is a signature of James Ehnes, now in his third year as SCMS’s artistic director.

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Filed under: chamber music, James Ehnes, review

A Homecoming and a Debut in Seattle

James Ehnes

James Ehnes

My latest Seattle Symphony review is now live on Bachtrack:

Not until the morning of the day before their concerts this week with the Seattle Symphony did conductor and soloist meet for the first time, yet the shared sympathy and depth of understanding they together brought to their interpretation of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 made this the richly satisfying highlight of the Seattle Symphony’s program.

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Filed under: Bartók, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Symphony

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