James Ehnes and Juraj Valčuha Join Minnesota Orchestra for “Soaring Strings”

“Soaring Strings” was the riveting title of the Minnesota Orchestra’s live streamed performance on March 5th. The concert featured two guest artists, conductor Juraj Valčuha and violinist James Ehnes, presenting works new and old. Although not necessarily soaring beyond expectations, Valčuha and the Orchestra crafted a variety of string performances worth listening to.

The concert opened with not one, but two works by Jessie Montgomery. Her Voodoo Dolls for string quintet was inspired by West African drumming patterns, blues, and jazz. The rhythmic low end and expressive slides in the upper strings elevated the performance beyond notes on a page. Violinists Helen Chang Haertzen and Sophia Mockler, violist Gareth Zehngut, cellist Erik Wheeler, and bassist David Williamson displayed fantastic visual energy, matching the tone of the music, and were well coordinated and dynamically balanced.

Source Code, a quartet performed by the previous ensemble minus Williamson, was a shift in character. A more pensive and anticipatory energy was created from sustained notes and chords in all instruments. Again, the ensemble demonstrated their technical and collaborative proficiency.

Ehnes joined Valčuha and the orchestra for the featured piece of the evening, Prokofiev’s mysterious Violin Concerto No. 2. His performance and demeanor was pristine as he took ownership of the piece, commanding the ensemble with each note. Ehnes and the orchestra executed echoing passages particularly well, stylistically matching each other. It was clear that every detail had been worked out, allowing the music to be filled with passion and feeling. 

Despite the brilliant performance, dynamic contrast was hard to discern, however that may be due to this writer’s lackluster sound system. Additionally, the unusual stage setup placed Ehnes directly behind the podium rather than downstage, making him barely visible during front camera shots.

Although a reliable closing selection, Mendelssohn’s exuberant “Italian” Symphony didn’t have the same level of preparation or excitement as the preceding pieces. In particular, the opening of the Tarantella was shaky and took a few moments to lock in to the tempo. Nonetheless, many sections were treated with care and attention to appropriate style.

Between each selection, lively conversation from the orchestra’s principal conductor Sarah Hicks, Classical MPR host Melissa Ousley, and guest artists created a cohesive evening with no stalling points.The recorded performance of “Soaring Strings” is available at the following link: https://mnorch.vhx.tv/videos/soaring-strings

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