Ehnes and Conlon start off New World’s new year in high-voltage style

01.08.12
James Conlon
South Florida Classical Review

By Lawrence Budmen

The New World Symphony offered the formidable duo of conductor James Conlon and violinist James Ehnes in its first concert of the new year on Saturday night. A dazzling performance of one of the mainstays of the concerto repertoire and a revisionist view of Berlioz’s mega-portrait of Romeo and Juliet provided high-voltage music making before a packed house at the New World Center.

Ehnes is one of the most impressive violinists on the contemporary concert scene. Combining stunning technique and deep musicality, he is a true virtuoso in the best sense of the term. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major may be one of the most overplayed scores in the repertoire but Ehnes dusted the cobwebs off this thrice-familiar music, offering a performance of visceral energy and impassioned ardor. His focused, incisive reading of the first movement flowed with grace and spontaneity, never turning diffuse or episodic. With a tone that cut through the orchestra with bright, gleaming power, then turning sweet and ravishing, Ehnes sailed through the concerto’s pyrotechnical hurdles with tremendous authority.

In the muted Canzonetta, Ehnes’ aristocratic phrasing captured the yearning and romance of Tchaikovsky’s pensive melodies. The soloist leaned forward as he attacked the finale, commencing at a rapid clip and reveling in the music’s gypsy accents. In a performance both restless and overflowing with excitement, Ehnes combined impeccable technique with astute musical intellect.

Conlon offered sterling accompaniment, detailing Tchaikovsky’s instrumental felicities with clarity while never overwhelming his soloist. Crystalline flute and oboe solos highlighted splendid playing by the New World fellows. As an encore, Ehnes offered Paganini’s unaccompanied Caprice No.16,  an uninhibited display of bravura speed and power.

It has been too long since Conlon has led the New World players. Instead of the standard three orchestral movements, Conlon conducted his own suite from Romeo et Juliette, Berlioz’s massive dramatic symphony based on Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers in Verona. Eschewing orchestral bombast, Conlon led an admirably restrained performance that paid dividends by displaying Berlioz’s orchestral wonders with refinement and transparency. Taut, strongly delineated fugal lines of the introduction emblazoned the subtle instrumental nuance and structural integrity of the entire performance.  The ballroom scene burst forth in a blaze of orchestral magic, Conlon capturing the balletic sweep of this extroverted dance music. The love scene unfolded with supple grace, all the better for lack of overheated passion.

Conlon  vividly conveyed the quicksilver lightness and vivacity of the Queen Mab Scherzo, recalling Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music for sheer sparkle. The choral finale, here presented in Conlon’s orchestral transcription, falls into the clichés of Meyerbeer and French grand opera, yet Conlon’s spacious reading brought great eloquence to this coda. The deep richness of the lower strings, ringing winds and sonorously balanced brass choirs excelled in Berlioz’s tour de force.

Conducting fellow Joshua Gersten opened the evening with a crisp traversal of the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, highlighting the music’s sardonic wit.