April 13, 2018
Hamer Hall, Melbourne

Marketing is an interesting phenomenon. Billed as “Tchaikovsky 5” no doubt to get traditionally minded punters through the doors, this concert delivered some fine music making, but the supposed main attraction was not the highlight by any means. The night, in fact, belonged to brilliant, young Canadian violinist, James Ehnes whose dazzling performance of the Violin Concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis reconfirmed him as one of the most prodigiously talented violinists of his generation. Kernis (b. 1960) teaches at Yale and wrote the concerto for Ehnes as the result of a commission from four orchestras: the MSO, the Toronto Symphony, the Seattle Symphony and the Dallas Symphony.

Tchaikovsky 5James Ehnes. Photograph ©  B Ealovega 

As colourful and busy as a Mambo print, Kernis’s concerto (a major work that lasts about half an hour) draws deeply from the well of 20th century music. Cast in three movements, the first is a substantial Chaconne based on a downward theme. Opening dramatically, the movement uses the full resources of a large orchestra to create a succession of vivid episodes. Kernis’s love of French mid-century modern idioms is evident here and throughout the work. While he mentions Messiaen in his program note, the music of Henri Dutilleux came to my mind. Traversing various peaks and valleys, the movement builds in intensity, and after a pyrotechnical cadenza closes with a tutti chord followed by a single pizzicato note.

Ballad, the blues-inflected central movement, allowed Ehnes to contrast melting lyricism with trenchant melancholy, once again against a beautifully coloured sonic backdrop. Energetic and not without a sense of humour, the concluding Toccatini (as the composer suggests, the name for a new martini) bubbles over with musical ideas all designed to showcase Ehnes’s astounding technique. Along the way there is a tuba solo and a train whistle but the parting gift of composer to soloist is a manic, dizzying cadenza that calls upon practically every trick in the book, designed to leave the listener gobsmacked. (It certainly did me.)

From the furrowed brows and nodding heads of the orchestra under the leadership of Muhai Tang, it was clear that the concerto is a challenging piece of work for all concerned. Happily, the challenge was met with energy and commitment, even in the absence of the regular string principals. The percussion players were also kept on their toes throughout.

Given the orchestra was so focussed on the Kernis, the other items on the program came across with an element of distraction. Brahms’s Tragic Overture, an old-fashioned but welcome curtain-raiser, was solid and characterful enough, but marred by some rough playing in the brass and some thin, shrill timbre in the upper strings.

Tchaikovsky’s romantic essay allowed the players to relax to some extent into a score they know well. Tang seemed to be in a hurry to wrap up proceedings and drove the first movement with perhaps too much pace, setting up some uncomfortable pauses here and there, rather than allowing the music to unfold in a more natural manner. The horn solo in the second movement was faithfully rendered, but the whole movement was in need of a greater sense of space and where appropriate, languor. Similarly, the Waltz, played, as it were, with a straight bat, could have benefitted from a little more whimsy. At some stage during the finale, Tang’s score went flying off his stand, leaving him to conduct the remainder from memory. There were no obvious ill effects from this mishap, but there was a distinct sense of push-and-pull between the strings and the winds which made this listener a tad uncomfortable. Despite these cavils, the symphony’s grand apotheosis was delivered convincingly and those who came for the Tchaikovsky were doubtless satisfied.

As for me, the real value of the evening was in hearing Ehnes play Kernis. If you have to sell it to the public like a “bonus bundle” with Tchaikovsky, so be it!

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky 5 again on Monday April 16 at 6.30pm