Chicago Classical Review

October 18, 2012

After rough start, Beethoven Festival offers sublime performance by Ehnes
Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 12:46 pm By Michael Cameron

The opening concert of the International Beethoven Festival didn’t exactly hum like a well-oiled machine. Just before the overture the audience was notified that the programs were on their way. Most in attendance likely thought that this mishap was the reason for the late start, but the real culprit was something more dire: a missing soloist.

The location was the landmark Great Hall of the National Pastime Theater (or Uptown Temple, or People’s Church), a 1925 edifice used so little for classical events that relatively few concertgoers know of its existence. Even locals think of it as an aging, faded behemoth that functions primarily as a lunch stop for the neighborhood’s homeless. Those in the know deem it Chicago’s best-kept musical secret, an acoustical gem in a city with a woeful shortage of decent medium size halls.

It’s a testament to a hall’s virtues that artists are drawn to a space that boasts so few creature comforts. The backstage and lobby are minuscule, a common liability in vertically conceived structures of this era. The presenters dodged a bullet with the recent blast of autumn air that refreshed a hall that lacks air-conditioning. And anyone who thinks that friendly chap on Lawrence and Sheridan was a parking attendant was in for a nasty surprise.

If the visuals inside and out were rough around the edges, organizers more than compensated by assembling a top notch chamber orchestra and inviting New York Philharmonic principal assistant conductor Daniel Boico and soloist James Ehnes, one of the finest violinists on the planet. Adding even more star power, Zarin Mehta was on hand to accept the IMF’s Beethoven Spirit Award.

The festival performs an important service by commissioning new works, including Saturday’s opener, David Winkler’s Forza Vita Festival Overture. Brimming with nobility and grandeur, it made for an effective curtain raiser.

There was an awkward pause after this premiere, followed by a much lengthier and nail-biting 10-minute break before which Boito announced that the soloist was MIA. Thoughts of his 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius being appropriated by one the neighborhood’s many open-air entrepreneurs were eventually eased, as Ehnes finally strode down the center aisle with a smile on his face and a Strad in his hand. With all of this unwelcome drama, the real pity was that no more than 200 patrons (in a 1,200 seat theater) were on hand for a truly sublime performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

There was a time when many violinists performed the imposing opening movement at a snail’s pace in the misguided hope that ponderous equals profound. The Canadian native chose a smart tempo, avoiding many of the fussy mannerisms that have accumulated in this mammoth concerto over the centuries. The sweet lyricism of his second movement soared into every corner of the hall, and expressions of deep appreciation could be seen on patrons and musicians alike. I don’t recall ever hearing a more probing, intelligent, and moving account of this warhorse.

For an encore, Ehnes delivered an unhurried and neatly sculpted account of the Preludio from Bach’s Partita No. 3.
Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Second Symphony were nearly as good, suffused by Boico with crackling intensity, and sustained with focused attention to structure and dynamic differentiation.

The acoustics on the ground level were mildly disappointing during the first half, but a seat on the lower balcony for the symphony was much better, boasting warm, burnished string sound and gleaming woodwind luster. Granted, fraying duct tape left a trace of adhesive on my pants, but that was a small price to pay for such unfailing artistic standards.
Editor’s Note: A festival spokeswoman said the delay in the start of the concerto performance Saturday was due to the fact that James Ehnes was (magnanimously) playing for festival workers setting up the post-concert reception on the fourth floor and was delayed getting back downstairs.
For more information on remaining Festival concerts.