NAC Orchestra with James Ehnes

In Kingston

2023-09-22 19:30 2023-09-22 22:30 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: NAC Orchestra with James Ehnes

In-person event

Brahms’ violin concerto is as serene as it is songful—perfect for the gleaming sound and expressive power of James Ehnes performing with the National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley.
With Schumann's Symphony No. 3, this not-to-be missed powerhouse performance kicks off the Isabel's 2023/24 season.

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Isabel Bader Centre,390 King Street West,Kingston,Canada
Fri, September 22, 2023



Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, “Rhenish”

I. Lebhaft 
II. Scherzo: Sehr mässig  
III. Nicht schnell  
IV. Feierlich  
V. Lebhaft  

In early September 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann moved to Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland, so Robert (1810–1856) could take up his position as the music director of the orchestra and chorus of the Allgemeiner Musikverein. Not long after they arrived, they went to Cologne where they visited the city’s monumental Cathedral, which in 1850, about 600 years after the laying of its foundation, was being completed to its original Gothic design. It made a significant impression on Robert, and, as confirmed by Josef von Waiselewski, the violinist and concertmaster of Schumann’s orchestra, became a source of inspiration for his Third Symphony (the fourth he would write). Soon after returning to Düsseldorf, Robert set to work on it. A few months later, on February 6, 1851, he led the premiere at the Musikverein there to warm reception, successful enough to merit a repeat performance within a month.

Among Schumann’s orchestral works, the Third Symphony remains a favourite with audiences for its picturesque qualities, while also admired by academics and critics for Robert’s distinctive approach to symphonic structure and formal process. Its subtitle “Rhenish”, although not the composer’s, does point to the background inspiration that evidently shaped the pictorial aspects of the piece. At the same time, Schumann uses the recall and development of motivic elements to create a sense of coherence through the Symphony’s movements in a purely structural way that was hitherto unprecedented. It would significantly influence the “developing variation” technique that characterizes the symphonies Johannes Brahms wrote three decades later.

The five movements of the “Rhenish” unfold like a series of “sonic pictures”—or as music scholar John Daverio aptly puts it, like a group of paintings in a highly curated exhibition. Each contains dynamic content that is internally unified within the bounds of their “frame” and is connected to the others in the symphonic “gallery” more through motivic allusion than conveying a narrative progression. The opening movement seems to depict the start of a grand adventure—it launches immediately (without a slow introduction) into an exuberantly swinging theme propelled by energetic cross-rhythms. Woodwinds briefly introduce a graceful winding melody, with a touch of melancholy, but the energy dominates. Later, in the middle section, the winding theme develops more of a presence amid vigorous passages. The swinging tune soon returns but it’s not yet the real reprise. Building through a four-horn proclamation of the tune in a broadened version, the music peaks at the true recapitulation. The main themes proceed as before, and the movement, never lagging in energy, reaches a glorious finish. 

Robert initially called the second movement “Morning on the Rhine”; the main melody possibly evokes the river’s flow, which is more like a gently lilting dance than a quicksilver scherzo. Then, a variation in sprightly figuration, after which a mellifluous new idea in the minor mode is presented by the horns, over quiet strings. Additional returns of the lilting theme (in a bright, bold guise) and the sinuous horn tune follow, leading to a full reprise of the scherzo.

A sense of flow continues into the third movement, which features three main elements that first appear in succession: 1) a singing clarinet melody whose leaping intervals allude to the symphony’s opening theme, accompanied by violas with undulating figures; 2) a tiptoe motif with sighing phrases played by violins and horns; and 3) a descending line of devotional character in the violas and bassoons. After the latter two are further developed, the clarinet melody returns, this time combined with the tiptoeing strings. In a neat act of summation, all three elements appear in the coda, which winds down on the tiptoe motif and sighs. 

Before the finale, Schumann inserts a remarkable fourth movement. In November, amidst his work on this symphony, he returned with Clara to Cologne Cathedral to witness the elevation of Archbishop Johannes von Geissel to cardinal. His experience made its way into this movement, which he had originally titled “In the style of a solemn procession”, though he later replaced this with the word “feierlich” (“solemnly”). Bassoons, trombones, and horns intone a contrapuntal chorale, to which woodwinds and strings add their voices. As musicologist Michael Musgrave has described, “The form of the main part…does not as much suggest the drama of a service as the metaphor of a building: its developing sections and overtly contrapuntal working seem to suggest the creation of the successive levels and spans of a great physical structure”—indeed, like that of Cologne Cathedral itself. 

Returning to lightness, the finale is an inventive summary of what came before. Several motifs—the extroverted first theme, the horn fanfare, and a rising arpeggio in the horns—all subtly reference those that have appeared in earlier movements: the slow movement’s tiptoe figure, the leaping first movement melody, and the scherzo’s first theme, respectively. In the recapitulation, a climactic brass fanfare recalls the ones in the fourth movement, after which the music picks up speed and rushes headlong to a joyous close. 

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD 


Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio 
III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace 

Most of the violin concertos from the 19th century we hear in the concert hall today were written for the eminent virtuosos of their time (in some cases, composer and violinist were one and the same). Very few, in fact, collaborated to the extent that Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) and the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) did to create a work on which the performer made such an indelible mark. As such, Brahms’s Violin Concerto remains a uniquely weighty example of the genre from its time that blurred the boundaries between composer and performer, soloist and orchestra, concerto and symphony.

It was August 1878, 25 years into their friendship, when Brahms surprised Joachim with the first movement of a violin concerto he had been secretly working on, requesting feedback on whatever the violinist found “difficult, awkward, impossible.” Delighted, Joachim responded, “Most of it is playable, much of it violinistically quite original; but whether it will be enjoyable to play in an overheated hall, I cannot confirm unless I play through the whole piece.” 

Over the next months, they worked on the concerto together in person and via correspondence until the premiere on New Year’s Day in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Joachim performing and Brahms conducting. This first effort was a disappointment; having only received the complete violin part four days before, Joachim was under prepared, and Brahms had been nervous, while the audience was coolly polite and the critics ambivalent. Two weeks later, in Vienna, Joachim played the concerto again (this time conducted by Joseph Hellmesberger) with much better results, though the critics there remained reserved. Learning from these performances, Brahms and Joachim together continued to tinker with the score, adjusting issues of balance (such as thinning out the orchestration in places) and refining violinistic details, even as Joachim continued to perform it. In August, after one last in-person consultation (during which they played it through for Clara Schumann), they agreed on the Concerto’s final version, which was published in October. 

As several scholars have revealed, Brahms didn’t just write his Violin Concerto for Joachim, he wrote it with him. He consulted the Joachim not only to be sure that his violin writing was idiomatically natural, but also to create a solo part that best embodied the performance style for which the great violinist was revered. Beyond his exceptional technical skill, Joachim was celebrated for his uncompromising attitude to musical quality and fidelity to the composer’s score. Furthermore, as musicologist Karen Leistra-Jones has discovered, he was especially admired for his “uncanny ability to present composed musical works as though they were being improvised, created on the spot through a mysterious fusion of Joachim himself with the mind or spirit of the composer.” As you’ll hear, it’s this quality of improvisatory spontaneity in Joachim’s playing that Brahms, through working with him, captures in the violin part. Meanwhile, the orchestra isn’t merely a backdrop but is shaped by rigorous symphonic processes, through which the violin solo intervenes and is interwoven.

The tension between these two expressive worlds is most palpable in the Concerto’s substantial first movement. It begins with the orchestra introducing several important motifs: 1) a falling then rising arpeggiated line of calm character; 2) robustly bold octaves; 3) gently winding phrases; and 4) confident snappy rhythms that lead to the soloist’s entry. Throughout the movement, each of these elements recurs and undergoes transformation, while the violin generally ruminates and decorates this material in a free and expansive way. In the lyrical second theme area, the violin interjects an expressive new theme that wasn’t in the orchestral exposition. The conflict between the two worlds escalates in the development section, but eventually culminates in an exuberant return of the opening theme for the recapitulation.

In the traditional point for a cadenza, Brahms had Joachim create his own, which, notably, Joachim wrote out rather than improvising one (today, his cadenza is still the most often played). A serious composition unto itself, the cadenza revisits all the movement’s main themes and motifs. At its conclusion, the violin leads into a final tranquil restatement of the opening theme, which the clarinet and oboe then take up, as the violin continues with a sublime extension that has it reaching ever higher. (This exquisite moment was the result of Brahms accepting Joachim’s advice to make his original conception of the theme less “uncomfortable” for the violin.) Gradually, the violin emerges out of its idyll, liquifying its line into flowing improvisatory phrases, after which the energy picks up and draws the movement to an emphatic close. 

The Concerto is rounded off by two shorter movements of contrasting character. Extending the “idyll” from near the end of the “Allegro,” the “Adagio” opens with a gorgeous melody sung by solo oboe. As in the first movement, the violin then takes the theme and muses on it, thoroughly exploring its lyrical and emotional possibilities. Following a rhapsodic middle section, the melody reappears in the oboe, now with the violin weaving around it. Together, they continue in a tender exchange to the movement’s serene end. The Finale is an affectionate tribute to Joachim. In the style hongrois (a blend of Hungarian musical elements and the fluid virtuosity of Romani performing style), the violin is fully unleashed in this boisterous rondo, which alternately features rigorous dance rhythms, florid runs, and charming delicate melodies. 

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD 


  • Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • violín James Ehnes
  • Featuring NAC Orchestra