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.