It was a surreal experience walking through the doors of Southam Hall for the first time in over two years. I attended a media preview of the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Truth In Our Time program, which is going on tour to Toronto and New York over the next few weeks before returning to Ottawa. There were two rehearsal blocks where I was able to hear Korngold’s Concerto in D Major, Opus 35 for Violin, and Orchestra with soloist James Ehnes (who will perform in the New York and Ottawa shows) as well as Phillip Glass’s commission for the NAC, Symphony No. 13. I also had the chance to speak with James Ehnes about the incredible Korngold piece and the tour.
Truth in Our Time is a program that encompasses a “hope to share a compelling, engaging and memorable concert that reflects on global challenges such as truth and freedom of speech,” according to a note from the NACO’s music director Alexander Shelley.
Of the program, Ehnes said, “There are the links, of course, with this idea of truth and persecution, but musically speaking it’s got such great variety. I think it’s got a little something for everyone.” The program itself contains a multitude of thematically on-point pieces, including Nicole Lizee’s Zeiss After Dark, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, and the aforementioned pieces by Korngold and Glass.
Korngold’s concerto is a piece that Ehnes has loved “for a very long time. Korngold was this great prodigy genius composer in Vienna, who then left Vienna under the threat of the Nazis. He ended up coming to America and was writing music for films and became one of, if not the best, great film composers of that era.” Korngold had an incredible knack for combining styles—he wrote concert music, film scores, and opera. The piece has such a lovely ambience—it feels dreamy and soft, with a perfect harmony between Ehnes’ solo parts and the rest of the orchestra. The solo is quite fast, but Ehnes handled it with the utmost of ease. While the first two movements’ contemplative pleasures are only heightened by their seeming simplicity, the third has an impeccable blend of plucking moments and smooth melodic parts; the concerto feels like home in the sweetest way possible.
I did at one point write “Home Alone?” in my notebook and my immediate thought was “Am I so out of practice that I only think in film scores now?” But Ehnes did confirm that there was a reason I swore I could hear John Williams. Korngold was a great composer of film scores of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Another Dawn (1937), Deception (1946), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Ehnes said, “Most of his concert music is from his pre-Hollywood days, but this piece was written very much in the heart of his Hollywood career. He took basically all of the themes in the Concerto from his film scores, so, you hear things that make you think of Errol Flynn.” So my inevitable thoughts of Home Alone can be attributed to the significant influence Korngold had on the film industry. “You think of the great film composers of subsequent generations and they owe a great debt to Korngold. And I think that you could say that much of John Williams’ film music is the spiritual successor to Korngold’s,” said Ehnes. The piece truly is a stylistic combination that “occupies two different worlds, in a way, because it is a concert piece by a very accomplished concert composer but the themes are from these great films of the late ’30s and early ’40s,” he said.
I always love having the opportunity to attend rehearsals and see the polishing in motion. The Korngold is absolutely one of those cathartic concertos that would have me in tears at a performance; there is just something about it that feels like an unfettering happiness. And the utter passion with which the NACO rehearses is akin to the same ambiance of their performances. They truly are a joy and a pleasure to watch in rehearsal and concert, and I highly recommend getting a ticket—either in-person or virtually—to the show.
We also spoke about the reasons people should come see a show like this. Ehnes’ first thought was, “The reason that it’s hard to answer is also kind of the answer. It can mean such different things to everyone, and I think one of the greatest qualities [instrumental music] has is that it is powerful, yet non-specific. Why should people come?” Ehnes laughs. “It’s hard for me to say because it means so much to me, but just to be able to experience something that is so multidimensional, so all-encompassing, and performed by the best in their field.” Ehnes poignantly compared the reaction of a first time orchestra-goer to that of someone watching the Olympics: “There are all these sports that no one’s ever heard of, or that no one really knows how they even work, but you get sucked in because it’s done so well and then you realize oh, that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Ehnes’ final note: “We’re not at the end, but we are at a point where sharing in collective experience is something that people have gotten out of the practice of. I found that the return to live performing over the last six months has been emotionally and psychologically powerful, and all of us on stage are certainly in the mood to share. It’s just so great to play properly for people, and it means a lot.”
The NACO performs Truth in Our Time in New York at Carnegie Hall on April 5 at 8 p.m. and then at the National Arts Centre April 13–14 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available here for the NAC performance and here for the livestream.