When last we heard from supple violin virtuoso James Ehnes in Santa Barbara, he was holding forth boldly as soloist with the august London Symphony Orchestra, part of the Music Academy of the West’s 2019 summer season. Between that point and his debut local recital at the Lobero Theater last week, Ehnes’ reputation in the music world has only risen. He earned the prestigious Gramophone “Artist of the Year” last year, joining earlier Grammy Awards and circulation in the upper echelon of international orchestra and recital scenes.
At the Lobero, in the finale of CAMA’s “comeback” 2021-22 season, the Canadian-born violinist wore his lofty status lightly, and with unpretentious graciousness. Was this another example of the paradigm that Canadians just tend to be nice people? Friendly, neighborly stage presence aside, the violinist proved to be “mean” where it counts, as a deeply musical interpreter and collaborator —with impeccable pianist Orion Weiss — capable of virtuosic flights when required.
The pair’s somewhat unusual, not-entirely persuasive program began with the beautifully-articulated, foursquare formality of Mozart’s Violin Sonata No 17 in C. Restraint and tender loving focus brought the score to life, before the split personality charms of Schubert’s fascinating curiosity Fantasie in C Major. In this concert highlight, the musicians seamlessly traversed the work’s alternating currents. In softer passages, languid long notes on violin float in the top fluttering piano tremolos, contrasting the fiercer angular energies and fugal dialogue elsewhere. The musicians skillfully navigated a through line between the diverse parts, with polish at every turn.
After intermission, they visited the relatively obscure concert music terrain of Eric Korngold, understandably best known for his film music. Korngold’s 1920 incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing came off pleasantly enough, though lacking edge or distinction. To close, Ehnes broke out all the stops (and double stops) for the shameless virtuoso showcase of Saint-Saens’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor. Stunning as the gymnastic note avalanche was, some of us longed for something of greater depth and sensitivity by that point. Ehnes obliged with an encore of Korngold’s poignant —and lyrical — “Tanzlied des Pierrot,” from his opera The Dead City.