James Ehnes is back in town, and fans of the fiddle will need no further inducement to line up at the Benaroya Hall box office to hear him play Bartók with the Seattle Symphony. Ehnes, who is the artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society as well as an internationally renowned violin soloist, is a familiar and beloved figure here. And the fact that he’s playing Bartók at Benaroya will resonate with anyone who has heard Ehnes’ fiery, breathtaking performances of chamber works by that composer.
It may be possible to play the Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 better than Ehnes did on Thursday evening, but frankly, I don’t think so. On every level — brilliance of technique, depth of interpretation, ensemble accuracy, and an obvious bone-deep love for the music — Ehnes lifted the concerto to dizzying heights, along with partnership from guest maestro André de Ridder. This is music Ehnes has long performed, and also recorded, and it is in his heart as well as his fingers.
On the podium, de Ridder was the conductor with “the score in his head, not his head in the score,” as the saying goes. His understanding of, and passion for, the Bartók was as clear as his easy partnership with the soloist.
Not many conductors have recording credits that include not only the likes of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” but also Gorillaz’ “Plastic Beach.” De Ridder’s resume is unusual, including pop and opera as well as classical credits from around the world (Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia). Tall, thin, and intense, de Ridder concluded Dvorak’s picturesque tone poem “The Noonday Witch” as if he had suddenly been set on fire, and this intensity woke up the startled audience — which applauded with unusual vigor. The supercharged Bartók that followed, not surprisingly, got a huge audience reaction.
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Did this mean the final work on the program was anticlimactic? Certainly not: Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony was given a sparkling and animated performance, with fresh, crisp playing and an interpretation that was both lyrically shaped and muscular. The finale went so fast that the players were hard pressed to keep up (an infinitesimal slowdown after the opening statement helped considerably). De Ridder shaped the music with his expressive hands, and the players responded with gusto.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.