Ehnes makes memorable Mozart with New World Symphony

By Lawrence Budmen

James Ehnes performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

James Ehnes is one of the finest violinists on the contemporary concert circuit. Combining stunning technique with patrician musicianship, Ehnes commands a diverse repertoire ranging from works of the Baroque and Classical eras to new and recent scores. 

On Saturday night he took the stage at New World Center and gave a performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A Major (Turkish) with the New World Symphony under Xian Zhang that blended stylistic nuances with a strong stamp of personal expression.

Zhang brought unusual detail and dynamic subtlety to the concerto’s orchestral introduction. From Ehnes’s initial entrance, his tone emerged vibrant, large and caressing. His brisk, light bow strokes in the Allegro aperto conveyed dynamic vigor while his expansive phrasing of the second theme allowed the rich sound of his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius to shine. 

Ehnes shaped the Adagio as one long musical paragraph while bringing depth and gravitas to the minor-key episodes. His reading of the final Rondo matched grace notes with gutsy bravura. In the Turkish interlude, with the ensemble’s lower string players tapping their bows against the instruments’ wood, a facsimile of gypsy fiddling rubbed elbows with aristocratic Mozartean acuity.

Zhang’s well-judged accompaniment was a model of fine collaboration, the ensemble playing with corporate polish and finesse. It is rare that a Mozart concerto elicits bravos or standing ovations but that was exactly the audience’s response to Ehnes’ outstanding performance. 

He offered two encores. In Eugene Ysaÿe’s solo Sonata No. 3 Ehnes tossed off the pyrotechnics with breezy authority and speed, his gradations of loud and soft sounding like two players. In the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 3, Ehnes’s nobility of line and tonal depth brought a demonstration of total instrumental command and refined artistry.

Xian Zhang. Photo: B. Ealovega

Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal guest conductor of Australia’s Melbourne Symphony starting in 2020 made an impressive NWS debut. After a very slow introduction, Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers sparkled. Lithe string attacks and cleanly articulated wind playing brought a dance-like quality to Rossini’s beguiling Italianate melodies. Zhang whipped up the final crescendo to a boiling pitch, drawing immediate cheers.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Major (1947) is typical of the composer’s later, post World War II works. In many ways an attempt to repeat the formula and success of the wartime Fifth Symphony, the score rambles and does not quite come off. Still there is some good thematic invention within this overstuffed opus and Zhang made a strong case for this uneven creation. 

Following the terse brass fragment that opens the symphony, a haunting theme emerges in the strings. Squealing winds and brass  take the tune to grimmer regions. Moments of lyricism share space with passages of violence and despair, the brass and percussion getting a real workout. Much of the first movement’s development section sounds like Prokofiev trying to emulate Shostakovich. Zhang superbly controlled the alternating calm and orchestral conflagration, keeping the diffuse movement molded with a steady hand.

The Largo is definitely the symphony’s weakest movement. Heavy on exaggerated angst, a brief interlude for strings and harp suggests Prokofiev’s ballet scores. The main theme of the final Vivace is very similar to its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony. With high precision from the strings, brass and all- important percussion battery, Zhang captured the contrasts of primitive rhythm and lush symphonic textures. She displayed total mastery of this daunting work, the final abrupt chords registering with tremendous impact.

The New World Symphony repeats the program 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sun Dec 15, 2019
at 12:37 pm
No Comments