The Florida Orchestra saved one of its best programs for last. With James Ehnes as the soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto and music director Stefan Sanderling leading the Brahms Symphony No. 1, the orchestra wound up the season on a high note Thursday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The program will be repeated tonight at the Mahaffey Theater.
Ehnes, a prolific recording artist (with more than 20 CDs on his resume), seems to have the world on a string — four strings, actually, the strings of his 1715 Stradivarius. With his clean-cut, boyish looks and formal bearing, he is the very picture of the 21st century virtuoso as violin nerd. But the mild-mannered appearance can be deceiving.
Along with his sweet, singing tone and unerring intonation in high passages, Ehnes mined a rich vein of passion in the marathon first movement, suggesting a tumult beneath the elegant surface. The meditative atmosphere he achieved in the delicately scored middle movement was mesmerizing.
The Beethoven concerto is remarkably flexible in terms of tempos. Performances are getting longer. I have four recordings of the work, and versions by oldtimers Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein clock in around 38 minutes, while contemporary soloists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell slow it down a lot. Ehnes stretches the work out as much as anyone, coming in around 44 minutes on Thursday.
The choice of cadenzas accounts for some differences in timing. Beethoven left no cadenzas, and many have been written to fill the void. Ehnes played the Fritz Kreisler cadenzas. There was a special sense of urgency to his rapid, skittery scales in the third movement's cadenza.
Ehnes, brought back for repeated bows by the enthusiastic audience, played an encore. "Since we have Beethoven and Brahms, I think we should also have some Bach,'' he said, launching into the lively prelude of J.S. Bach's Partita No. 3.
The edge-of-the-seat intensity that Sanderling brought to the First Symphony's tragic opening movement set the stage for a brilliantly sculpted performance. Brahms was the great craftsman, and all his deft handiwork, such as the brass transition into the big tune of the fourth movement, was on fine display.
The Beethoven concerto and Brahms symphony provided plenty of moments for principals in the orchestra to shine. Both works begin with passages for timpani, laid down with the steadiness of a heartbeat by John Bannon. The expressive oboe playing of Katherine Young was a highlight of the Brahms.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.