Classical Junos: who'll win the large ensemble category?

We take a detailed look at the nominees for this prestigious award.

We take a detailed look at the nominees for this prestigious award

In 2018, Peter Oundjian's 14-year tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra came to an end. (Jag Gundu/TSO)

The nominees for the 2019 Juno Awards have been announced, and over the coming weeks we're going to dig into each of the four classical categories, beginning with classical album of the year: large ensemble.

This year's nominees are:

  • National Arts Centre Orchestra, David DQ Lee, Alexander Shelley, New Worlds.
  • Seattle Symphony and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, James Ehnes, Newton Howard & Kernis: Violin Concertos; Tovey: Stream of Limelight.
  • BBC Philharmonic, Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4.
  • Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, Gryphon Trio, Arthur Post, Into the Wonder.
  • Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Elmer Iseler Singers, Carla Huhtanen, Emily D'Angelo, Lawrence Wiliford, Tyler Duncan, Louis Lortie, Sarah Jeffrey, Teng Li, Peter Oundjian, Vaughan Williams.

It's encouraging to see so many new works alongside established classics on several of these albums. Also noteworthy is the fact that, for conductors Post and Oundjian, their recordings marked fond farewells to the orchestras they had led for seven and 14 years, respectively.

The nominees include a first-timer (TBSO) as well as the most decorated classical musician in Juno Awards history (James Ehnes.) But, surprisingly, they don't include the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, which is an omission.


We love the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra's February 2018 release, Mirage?, timed to mark conductor Anne Manson's 10th season with the organization. It pairs meticulous performances of recent works by Christos Hatzis and Michael Oesterle with thrilling transcriptions of Baroque music by Corelli and Vivaldi. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a frequent MCO collaborator, amazes as the featured soloist. An exceptional recording, it deserved a Juno nod.

Moving on, here's our breakdown of this year's contenders in the large ensemble category, including predictions for who should win and who will win.

​1. National Arts Centre Orchestra and Chorus, David DQ Lee, Alexander Shelley, New Worlds

This album bears witness to Shelley's commitment to giving new music equal billing to orchestral chestnuts by juxtaposing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") with Ana Sokolovic's song cycle for countertenor, choir and orchestra, Golden slumbers kiss your eyes.

The latter comprises seven songs in six languages, and is conceived as a sort of European tour, ably guided by countertenor David DQ Lee and a choir assembled from Ottawa's best groups. The songs are ingeniously connected by swooshes of percussion that transport the listener among the different locales.

Countertenor David DQ Lee is the soloist on the NAC Orchestra's Juno-nominated album New Worlds. (Supplied by the artist)

Highlights include the eponymous "Golden slumbers," which starts as a ravishing duet between Lee and a solo violin and then becomes a cascade of shimmering massed sound; "Tarantella del Gargano," a folksy love song calling for Lee to sing down to a low F (!); the spellbinding choral clusters of "Guter Mond"; "Durme, durme," a haunting solo for Lee, unaccompanied apart from occasional punctuation by muted trumpets; and "Dodole," which recalls Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. It's got all the elements of a good trip: discovery, beauty, thrills, repose.

Then, from Sokolovic's Old World, we're transported to Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, and the first thing that strikes the listener is the beautifully blended sound of the NAC Orchestra, for which Analekta's recording engineer Carl Talbot can take part of the credit.

We love the ​perky tempo of the first movement — hats off to principal flutist Joanna G'froerer for the peaceful interludes, and the NACO brass for bringing the ruckus. Anna Petersen's eloquent cor anglais solo applies the requisite gold filter to the second movement's Arcadian imagery, while the third movement's whirling dances benefit from the right balance of control and abandon. NACO's rendition of the martial main theme of the fourth has all the might of the "Imperial March" from Star Wars.

New Worlds is a remarkable achievement. But will it bring NACO a new Juno?

2. Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cristian Macelaru, James Ehnes, Andrew Armstrong, Newton Howard & Kernis: Violin Concertos; Tovey: Stream of Limelight

Over the past two decades, Ehnes has been steadily building a deep discography of the standard violin repertoire — and collecting a record number of Juno nominations and wins along the way.

But this album documents his recent adventures in a parallel endeavour: commissioning and performing new music. Here, we've got live performances of two contrasting full-length concertos for violin and orchestra by Americans Aaron Jay Kernis and James Newton Howard, performed by Ehnes with the Seattle Symphony and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, respectively. The program is completed by a studio recording of Bramwell Tovey's Stream of Limelight, for violin and piano.

The album opens with Kernis's concerto, the more cerebral of the two. Conductor Morlot and Ehnes launch into the assertive opening of the first movement, "Chaconne," with unity of purpose, and appear to relish the contrasting characters of the ensuing variations. The impressionistic second movement, "Ballad," recalls Messiaen's Poêmes pour Mi as Ehnes's singing violin mingles with an iridescent orchestra, enhanced by piano, celeste and enchanting touches of percussion. A rather twisted cadenza bursts in on the third movement, "Toccatini," and from there to the end of the piece, it's a bonkers display of dazzling technique.

'When I was offered a commission to compose a violin concerto for James Ehnes ... I was at once thrilled, excited, expectant, and ultimately terrified.” — James Newton Howard (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

To use a pop-culture analogy, Howard's concerto is the This is Us to Kernis's Black Mirror. Its emotional tone relies on a more familiar musical language, one that Howard has cultivated as a composer of scores for films, including The Fugitive, The Sixth Sense, The Dark Knight and The Hunger Games. The first movement is a successor to the Korngold concerto, with an attractive melodic contour and a captivating cadenza halfway through. A solo clarinet establishes the second movement as the emotional core of the work, and in fact, Howard based its melody on one sung by a boy — the son of friends — who died tragically at the age of 18 months. Ehnes and conductor Macelaru bring a child-like sense of wonder to this tender, most vulnerable of musical utterances.

The presto third movement, which Howard based on a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski called The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, does gallop along with big-sky spontaneity that recalls Copland, and the performance deserves every second of the ecstatic applause that greets its final note.

Streams of Limelight, the piece by Tovey that rounds out the album, nicely bridges the rigour of Kernis's concerto with the post-modernism of Howard's. You may have heard it during Ehnes and pianist Armstrong's cross-Canada concert tour back in 2016; they clearly adore playing it.

As we now know, Ehnes won the Grammy Award for best classical instrumental solo for this recording of Kernis's concerto, with Kernis himself winning best classical composition for the same work. Will this momentum propel them to a Juno win?

3. BBC Philharmonic, Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4

With his 60th birthday coming up in April, Lortie is at the height of his powers, and his discography on Chandos Records will soon hit the 50-album mark.

The latest addition to that discography is Volume 1 of what Chandos promises to be a two-album set of all five Saint-Saëns piano concertos. These pieces have gone out of style in the past 50 years, but Lortie — soulful, with technical brilliance and reserves of power — is the perfect pianist to bring them back to the fore, especially with Gardner and the BBC Phil, who proved such convincing partners for Lortie on 2015's stunning all-Poulenc release.

Edward Gardner has been chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic since 2015. (Benjamin Ealovega)

When Volume 1 came out last September, we of course skipped immediately to the second concerto, the most familiar and flashy of the five. Lortie plays the imposing ad libitum intro with flair and summons bass notes with the heft of 32-foot organ pipes. In the ensuing dialogue between piano and orchestra, there are extended passages of pure beauty, punctuated by hair-raising tutti outbursts. The second movement is appropriately sprightly and Mendelssohnian, while Lortie makes the breakneck tarantella of the third movement seem easy.

Come for the second concerto, yes, but stay for the first! There are moments in its first movement where you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a Wagner Overture rather than a piano concerto, although soon Lortie goes toe-to-toe with a pretty boisterous horn section and sets the record straight. The second movement, streaming above, is an astonishing creation, at once neo-baroque and proto-impressionist, and Lortie and Gardner revel in its wonderful weirdness before turning the closing movement's cuckoo motif into a hilarious romp.

In some respects, the fourth concerto is a contest, with soloist and orchestra taking turns trying to outdo each other. There's no winner, although the BBC Phil comes close with some truly virtuosic playing while Lortie's rhythmic verve will get you out of your seat in the final section of the second movement. Fans in Toronto can hear for themselves when Lortie joins the TSO for two performances of this work on May 24 and 25.

Lortie has been nominated in this category seven times — two of them this year alone (see No. 5, below) — but has never won. Could this be his year?

4. Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Post, Gryphon Trio, Into the Wonder

Let's hear it for Thunder Bay, Ont., the smallest city in Canada to have a full-time symphony orchestra. And now, that orchestra has its first Juno nomination for Into the Wonder, an album comprising two substantial works by Jordan Pal, both based on natural phenomena.

For Starling, a three-movement composition for piano trio and orchestra, Pal was inspired by murmuration, the graceful, pulsating gathering of hundreds of birds that appear to move with a collective purpose. "Musical techniques, such as aleatoric devices, spontaneous content-driven forms, and the soloists' dynamic interactions with each other and the orchestra, assist in suggesting the intuitively ever-changing, non-linear processes of nature," he writes in the album's notes.

Gryphon Trio comprises, from left, violinist Annalee Patipatanikoon, pianist Jamie Parker and cellist Roman Borys. (Bo Huang)

The piece is pictorial, filling the air with trills, fluttering percussion and bird song — it's awesome in the true sense of the word. As soloists (and co-commissioners of the work), the members of Gryphon Trio play with urgency and in the third movement, rise to the nearly impossible challenge of conductor Post's terrifying tempo.

Whereas Starling deals with an earthly phenomenon, the album's second work, Into the Wonder, celebrates the universe and its mysterious beauty, "evoking birth and death, creation and destruction, universal interconnectedness and the rapture of love," Pal explains.

It's a tall order for a 30-minute piece of music, but Pal does pack a lot into its three movements, which are connected by an idée fixe. The TBSO, enhanced by a synthesizer, gets a real workout here, especially the brass section. (Are there really only five brass players, as indicated in the CD booklet?) Pal may have conceived this as an abstract work, but his writing suggests a dance score, full of movement and breathless energy.

With this collaboration, the TBSO said goodbye to Post, who recently completed his seven-year tenure as music director. But will they say hello to their first Juno?

5. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Elmer Iseler Singers, Carla Huhtanen, Emily D'Angelo, Lawrence Wiliford, Tyler Duncan, Sarah Jeffrey, Louis Lortie, Sarah Jeffrey, Teng Li, Peter Oundjian, Vaughan Williams

This album confirms the adage that teamwork makes the dreamwork.

Oundjian assembled an all-Canadian lineup for this Vaughan Williams survey that was evidently a dream come true for the conductor. Recorded in concert during Oundjian's 14th and final season as music director of the TSO, the album begins with the impossibly beautiful Serenade to Music for SATB soloists, chorus and orchestra. The performance is framed by the gorgeous solo violin of Jonathan Crow, and features vibrant singing all round from the four soloists, with soprano Huhtanen's "and draw her home with music" delivering all the chills.

Next comes the Oboe Concerto in A Minor, and Sarah Jeffrey's ornate solo lines in the bucolic first movement are as effortless and lovely as the song of a thrush. Thanks to sensitive phrasing from soloist and conductor alike, the second movement flows seamlessly. The rather episodic third movement affords Jeffrey a chance to employ darker colours and express some deeper emotions — a reminder that the piece was composed at the height of World War II .

Teng Li is principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Bo Huang)

It was a stroke of genius to follow Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto with Flos Campi, which itself begins with a brief oboe solo. (This is why we still love albums!) For this work, Vaughan Williams augmented his orchestra with solo viola and wordless chorus to invoke the sensual biblical verses of Song of Solomon, and violist Teng Li's ravishing playing almost makes you blush with its incredible potency. The final section is a vehicle for some truly expressive choral singing by the EImer Iseler Singers.

​To conclude, Lortie joins the TSO for Vaughan Williams' unjustly neglected Piano Concerto in C. We've already raved about Lortie's abilities (see No. 3, above), which are in evidence right from the bombastic opening beat. He loves this score as much as Oundjian does, and their enthusiasm is palpable. In the transparent textures of the second movement, synchronization is uncanny — remember, this is a live recording — and the performers accentuate the expressionistic qualities of the third before bringing it to a peaceful conclusion. Hands down, our favourite recording of this work.

The TSO did not convert its Grammy nomination to a win for this album. Will the Junos amend that oversight? 

Should win

At first glance, Ehnes' album seemed like a worthy exercise in cataloguing his commissioned works. We were unprepared for the profound effect these new pieces by Kernis, Howard and Tovey would have, and we're eager for opportunities to hear them in concert. His album deserves the Juno.

Will win

We predict the jury will be swayed by the homegrown goodness of the TSO's Vaughan Williams project, and will give them the Juno Award.


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