INTERVIEW WITH JAMES EHNES
Marc Wieser (September 29, 2016)
On his upcoming concerts and recital (October 13, 14 and 16) with the OSM
Marc Wieser : Let’s start by looking back. You made your professional orchestral debut with the OSM 27 years ago after winning the OSM Competition in 1988, at the age of 13. As a young musician from Brandon, Manitoba, what was the experience like to come and perform with the OSM?
James Ehnes: It was a little overwhelming. In a way, I was not old enough to psyche myself out, so I just enjoyed it. I grew up around music – my father was a trumpet professor – so I was very aware of the OSM’s place as a leader in the orchestral world. I had been in Montreal for the competition several months before, and I had kind of fallen in love with the city. My entire family was able to come [to the concert] so that was a very special thing. It was an amazing opportunity – that’s for sure.
MW: What did you play in that concert?
JE: I played Tzigane by Ravel. That was actually the reason I put it on my recital for the OSM in a couple of weeks. It’s sort of a personal reflection for me, but it also works well on the programme. I thought it was a nice idea to perform the piece that I had played with the orchestra so many years ago at the start of this relationship that has been so important for me.
MW: You’ve returned to Montreal many times since then. It has changed a lot since 1988. When you perform here these days, do you ever have a sense of revisiting that first experience?
JE: There are certain things in Montreal that always make me feel young again. Certain sights and sounds – like one sound that everyone in Montreal knows: the ‘doo-doo-dooooo!’ of the metro. Every time I hear it I feel like I’m thirteen again. It was the first time I had ever been on a subway in my life, and I thought it was the greatest thing! In Montreal there are these fantastic memories to bring me back to other important stages in my life: my first orchestral recording with the OSM and Charles Dutoit was a big watershed moment for me. Also moments in my twenties, like bringing my wife there for our first romantic weekend. Having never actually lived in Montreal, it’s amazing how many of my important memories come from that city.
MW: Actually, in October the OSM will be giving a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the metro, and one of the works, an electroacoustic piece by Robert Normandeau, will feature that very same distinctive sound of the metro!
MW: You’ve embarked on a cross-Canada tour, Ehnes@40, wrapping up in November, by which point you’ll have completed 25 recitals in communities across the country.
JE: I think it actually got up to 26 recitals. In some places I also managed to work in conjunction with some of the orchestras that are most important to me. Being able to combine this recital with my residency at the OSM is really very special on a personal level.
MW: I’m wondering about the intimacy of the recital format, and the intimacy of the different venues where you’ve ended up playing. For instance, do you perform differently in Montreal and Toronto, than you would smaller communities such as in Regina, or Iqaluit?
JE: I think one always responds to the room in a slightly different way. The atmosphere is different depending on the size and the closeness of the audience. But in a recital the best thing you can do is try to draw the audience into you, even if it’s a really big room. Luckily the Maison symphonique has wonderful acoustics where you can draw the audience into a very intimate experience, even though it’s a 2000-seat hall! This is going to be my first full recital at the Maison symphonique, and I’m really looking forward to that – to experimenting with the sound and hopefully turning it into a very intimate atmosphere.
MW: Despite the fact that you are from Brandon, there is a case to be made in Montreal for thinking of you as a bit of a home-town boy. When you play for a Montreal audience, is there a sense of playing to your own people, as it were?
JE: Good! That makes me happy! It’s a wonderful feeling playing in Montreal. I’ve been so grateful to Montreal audiences – the way they have supported me over the years. I feel that when I walk onto stage, before I even play a note, there is a sense of warmth. I even see people in the audience who I recognize – you start to see the same people year after year. So, yes, I have certainly felt very close to Montreal music lovers for all the support that they’ve given me.
MW: What lies beyond November for you?
JE: Right now, everything has been so busy that I’m going one week at a time. But as soon as we finish up with the recital tour in November I’ve got a couple of trips to Europe for some concerto dates and a tour with my string quartet. I’m going on a tour to China with the City of Birmingham Orchestra in December, and in the new year I’m very excited about premiering a brand new violin concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis. I’ll be doing a tour of eastern Canada with the NAC Orchestra for the sesquicentennial [150th anniversary] in ’17, and I’ll be in Ottawa on July 1st next year. There won’t be another party like that for at least another 50 years, I would think!
MW: In sum, you’re not letting up…
JE: No, things are going pretty heavy for the next little while. But it’s a great luxury to be at a point in my career where everything on my schedule is something that I have a very specific reason for wanting to do. I get excited about every concert that’s on my schedule – it’s there because I put it there, it’s something I’ve wanted to do. It’s just a great feeling to have that kind of control over my artistic destiny, and it’s just a joy to go to these places that I love, see people I love, and play music I love.
MW: Let’s talk repertoire. Is there any music that really represents who you are, that you feel drawn to again and again?
JE: The nice thing about this recital programme at the OSM is it’s a little different than most of the other recitals on the tour. We wanted to focus on repertoire that was iconic for the violin. The pieces are all special to me, but they are also the types of pieces that if you were only to attend one violin recital in your life, you should hear. That’s how we decided on pieces like the Franck Sonata, the Beethoven “Spring” Sonata , the Ravel Tzigane, the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro – these pieces are all just magnificent and fun to play. I’m also really looking forward to playing the Bramwell Tovey piece [Stream of Limelight], which was written for this tour. Bramwell is a very special person in my life. As a conductor he’s given me a lot of my greatest musical opportunities over the years, and I’d never had the chance to play any of his music before, so I was thrilled when he wrote this piece. People love it and they respond to it so strongly, and Andy and I just love playing it. I feel like this is a piece that will gain a really strong foothold in the repertoire, and it’s exciting to be the violinist in ‘on the ground floor’ with it.
MW: What is your relationship to the Dvořák concerto, and how did you decide to perform it with Juraj Valčuha and the OSM?
JE: It grew out of a discussion with Marianne Perron (OSM Director of Artistic Programming). One of the nice things about getting to know an orchestra really well and getting to know the people in the administration is you get to have fun and rewarding conversations that lead to great collaborations. I’ve known Marianne since before her time at the OSM, when she was in Lyon, so we’ve been friends for a long time. The Dvořák is actually one of her favourite pieces, and she’s never had the chance to program it during her time in Montreal. I was thrilled to do it – it’s a piece that I love and I’ve recorded and played quite a bit, but it’s not a piece that comes around all the time. You sort of have to make your own opportunities to perform it. Juraj Valčuha is someone I had heard such great things about. Of course as a Czech person, you associate him (whether it’s fair or not) with Czech music, and it just all seemed to fall into place. I’m really excited for it because I haven’t actually played the Dvořák in about two years, and I’ve been really missing it. That’s where you hope to be when you’re getting ready to perform something – where your desire to play that music is at its peak. I would say right now it really is.