A Birthday with Beethoven: James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong in Concert

A Birthday with Beethoven: James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong in Concert

James Ehnes. Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega.

Review by Mark Lindenberg

On October 18, at 8 pm in Québec City’s Palais Montcalm, I had the pleasure of seeing Andrew Armstrong (piano) and Brandon, Manitoba-born James Ehnes (violin) perform as part of a tour celebrating the latter’s 40th year, in a career that saw Ehnes, who started playing the violin at the age of 4, make his orchestral solo debut when he was just 13 years old.

I’ve been to the Palais Montcalm a number of times now, but I’d not yet heard a duo of classical musicians. Whether it’s a choir, a crooner backed by an orchestra, or two performers at the top of their game, the venue’s acoustics are perfect – whatever the set-list.

This night, it was a varied one, starting with all four movements (Adagio, Allegro, Larghetto and Allegro) of Handel’s Sonata in D Major HWV 371. I don’t know much about classical music, but I could appreciate the musical interplay of the piano and violin throughout, each instrument getting its moment in the spotlight, and giving Armstrong and Ehnes a chance to complement each other. Played with feeling and nuance, on the part of both performers.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring” (all four movements) was slightly more familiar and, it seemed to me, less sombre than the Handel. As the title would suggest, there was a great deal of playfulness and movement in the piece, quieter moments contrasted with the more exuberant, and it was a delight to watch (and hear) Armstrong and Ehnes convey that with their own movement, exuberance and good humour.

After a short intermission, the musicians returned to the stage to play Bramwell Tovey’s Stream of Limelight. Though I’d heard of the accomplished English composer and current Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, I’d never heard his music. But Ehnes and Tovey have worked together before, so it was a fitting acknowledgement of both artists. Limelight was a moody, intriguing work. Ehnes managed to coax sounds I’d never heard a violin make before from his instrument.

The concert’s final act consisted of a selection of different pieces, including an excellent rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s complex Flight of the Bumblebee, Jan Sibelius’ Berceuse, James Newton Howard’s energetic 133…At Least, and Percy Grainger’s wistful, emotional Molly on the Shore, to name only a few. The night’s program closed with Pablo de Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella.

The audience approved, giving the musicians a well-deserved standing ovation, and again after each encore, the first of which was Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, the second of which wasn’t referred to by name.

Ehnes and Armstrong have, so far, had strong and varied careers in their own right: Ehnes has played with the Melbourne Symphony and is Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Armstrong has performed with the Warsaw Philharmonic and played Carnegie Hall. Bring them together, and one witnesses a celebration of fine music.

Ehnes may be the one celebrating a milestone year, but he’s also the one generously giving that gift to his audiences with this tour.

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Categories: Arts & Culture

About Author

Mark Lindenberg

Mark Lindenberg's essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail and Maclean's Magazine, among other publications. In a career spanning 15 years, three provinces, and two official languages, he has written, edited, and translated work on a wide variety of topics for employers and clients alike. Mark lives in Quebec City with his wife and two cats.

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