Conductor Stephane Deneve likes the personal touch. Just as he had on Wednesday, he talked on Thursday night to the crowd about the music he and the Philadelphia Orchestra would play.
Thursday’s was an all-Beethoven program, and he said he was amazed that after 200 years, Beethoven’s music was still so universally enjoyed. But over the years, his tempos had become so much slower.
“I will try to respect the tempo markings that he wrote,” Deneve said. “They give a freshness … a flavor.”
Then he introduced 35-year old Canadian violinist James Ehnes, his longtime colleague, to play the Violin Concerto — a first for them to work together on this work. It was a sensational performance.
Ehnes, who last was at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 2000, is not a flashy player. Rather, he gets the job done with an effortless technique, a musically sensitive way with a phrase and a precision of note and rhythm that is clarity itself. After a graceful, leisurely introduction in which Deneve gave the lyrical phrases plenty of air, Ehnes entered with those famous octave leaps to play for 30 straight minutes.
Throughout, as they worked so well together, Ehnes showed a great technical capacity with well-sung phrases. Deneve was the perfect partner with an orchestra that played as if it was discovering something new.
The second movement was all elegance, and Ehnes went for a purity of tone and little vibrato. This quickly led to the brilliant finale, with its bright, driving tempo, explosive dynamics and great vigor. Ehnes’ brilliant cadenza was hugely exciting.
The crowd leaped to its feet, with bravos ringing out. Even concertmaster David Kim seemed impressed when he shook Ehnes’ hand. After several curtain calls, Ehnes gave an encore the Preludium from one of J. S. Bach’s Partitas. A short but non-stop movement with lots of notes, Ehnes added strong dynamic contrasts and impressed again with his quicksilver technique.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (“Eroica”) seemed especially life-affirming the way Deneve handled it. He was very detail-oriented and brought out all sorts of touches many other conductors let fly by — the syncopated lines, the accents, the inner voices leading to climaxes. Most of all, he didn’t hesitate to go for dynamic extremes, from super soft and barely there to all-out celebration.
His first movement had great buoyancy, with flowing lines and passionate statements in which Deneve’s hair flew. The funeral march was smooth and warm, with high drama. He let loose in the third with a frothy lightness. And the finale was speedy, taut with a flashy coda. The crowd loved it.
Tonight is the first of Cirque de la Symphonie’s two nights. Deneve will lead again in music that ranges from “Star Wars” to Wagner.