|James Ehnes - © Benjamin Ealovega|
In his playing of the Prokofiev, Ehnes combined flawless technique with the superior artistry to create marvelous views of the music’s landscape. Lyrical sweetness, grace yet rapid runs, sleek glissandos, and buzzy tones were part of the sonic journey. Everything seemed to flow effortlessly from Ehnes’ fingers. His transitions from slow to fast and back again and his command of passages in the uppermost range were thrilling. Near the end of the piece, he spun a series of high-wire trills while the orchestra supported with a clocklike tick tock.
Ehnes’ performance could only be topped by a show stopper, so that’s what the orchestra did by uncorking an intensely engaging interpretation of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” Led by Märkl’s graceful and almost balletic conducting style, the orchestra was on fire, playing with passionate intensity. Attacks, cutoffs, sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, accelerandos, ritardando, and everything in between was outstanding. Highlights of the performance included, the exchange of phrases between the English horn (Kyle Mustain) and oboe in the balcony (Martin Hébert), the enthusiastic pounding the timpani and bass drums, the lilting waltzes of the strings, the jocular march to the scaffold with the woodwinds in the lead, the grumblings of the bass violins, and the rocking out of all of the musicians during the final nightmare of the Witches’ Sabbath. The players seemed to be having a blast and it resonated all over the hall.
In sharp contrast, the opening piece “Blossoming II” (written by Hosokawa in 2011) generated tones that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. A pillowy soft sound would gradually increase in volume and size and then shrink. It was soft of like hearing plants grow during the day and relax at night. Sometimes Alicia Didonato Paulsen’s flute would ruffle things up a bit like the wind. At other times, the strings would create insect-like sounds. Perhaps a number of other instruments were involved in these effects. I think that I heard the contrabassoon (Evan Kuhlmann) dive into the depths before vanishing into a higher realm. Märkl marvelously guided it all with gestures that at times looked like he was swatting at flies.
Overall, this was a terrific program that really stretched the ears and mind. Kudos to the orchestra and its guest artists.