As part of his 40th birthday celebrations, Canadian virtuoso violinist James Ehnes is hitting the road. Travelling across Canada with his family and accompanist Andrew Armstrong in tow, Ehnes will cross coast-to-coast-to-coast in Canada, trekking from Vancouver to St. John’s and all the way North to Iqaluit as part of his James Ehnes @40 tour.
Next month, Ehnes plays the Dvořák Violin Concerto with the OSM (October 13, 8PM & October 14, 7PM), and a recital of Beethoven, Franck, and Ravel with Armstrong (October 16, 2:30PM). He returns to Montreal this spring in recital at LMMC Concerts, (April 30, 2017, 3:30PM).
Below is a transcript of my July 18 telephone interview with Ehnes in advance of La Scena Musicale‘s September 2016 issue, which featured him on the cover.
Kiersten van Vliet: You’re in Seattle right now as the Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. Can you describe your experience?
This is a fun and very regular part of my life. I’ve been coming to this Festival as a player for 22 years. So, Seattle is kind of like a second home. It’s a great musical experience every year and it’s also a fun way to hang out with my friends and play my favourite music with my favourite people. It’s always a good time. It’s crazy busy and I’m here with my family – two little kids – right now so it’s an adventure getting time distributed to everything and getting some sleep now and again but it’s great. I love being out here.
KvV: The Seattle Chamber Music Festival falls in the middle of your 40th birthday tour. Is that something you planned for the tour, something that you knew would happen?
Well the tour was originally planned to just be in May. Basically, it started getting too full and it was looking like May was going to be slightly more problematic for a few parts of the country – mostly in Quebec – so we ended up building in another tour period into the Fall, and that turned into a few shorter tour periods.
Yes, originally the plan was for it to be more condensed, but then – happily – it just got bigger and crazier. And, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. It then got to the point where any kind of spare few days in the schedule, I’d say, “Well, hey, let’s go back to Canada and try to go somewhere else.”
KvV: So are you driving each time to Canada, or are you flying, or is it variable depending on your schedule?
It’s been a variety. One thing that was really fun with the first part of the tour – it opened in Ottawa – but then after that, the next concerts started in Vancouver and went basically in a line all the way to Winnipeg: Vancouver, Kelowna, Banff, Calgary, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg. My family was with me, and of course my pianist Andy, and we all hopped in a minivan and drove across the country. It was awesome!
And, you know, it’s such a beautiful time of year. In May, everywhere in Canada is beautiful, but every place is beautiful in its own way. It’s just such a great experience, to get to see so much of the country. These are mainly places – in fact I think in the Spring portion of the tour every place we went is somewhere I had already been, but Andy hadn’t been to some of these places, my wife Kate hadn’t been to some of these places, and it is fun for me to get to show them off. I reconnect with people in these places, but I also show to the people I care about – like my family and Andy – what I love about these different parts of Canada. It makes me very proud of my country.
KvV: Where did the idea for the tour come from, aside from a base-ten anniversary year for you?
Well, it’s sort of silly, right? A 40th birthday is a very artificial thing but everyone talks about it and jokes about it. “Ah, you’re over the hill!” So, as it was approaching, it just crossed my mind that there were certain special projects that would be very meaningful to me to be able to do them. So this whole season has been about these special projects.
On my 40th birthday, on the night of my birthday, I played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. I lived in New York for years, I went to school there, many of my closest friends still live there, so being able to do that – with my teacher in the audience – that was really meaningful to me.
With my quartet, we played a cycle of all of the Beethoven String Quartets, just last month. And I’m doing a series of the complete solo Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Things like this, these big projects.
But the thing that’s really resonated with me was trying to get to spend as much time as possible up in Canada. I married an American, my life is down in the States now. I’ve been really fortunate to keep a close connection to Canada, but more and more it had gotten to the point where I was flying into the bigger cities – Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver – and then flying home. And that’s great, but it’s not really seeing Canada.
It also was a big part of my thoughts that my daughter – she’s four-and-a-half now – she’s at an age where she can really appreciate things and hopefully really remember great experiences. But she’s not in school yet, so there was an opportunity to show her Canada. By virtue of me being a Canadian, she is technically a Canadian, too. So, I wanted her to feel that connection, and to be able to see where I grew up, see the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains and the Prairies, French Canada and the Maritimes; that’s all very important for me.
My little boy – he’s just turning two next week – he’s not going to remember any of this. So maybe I’ll have to do another tour when he’s a little older.
KvV: When you’re 50 or something.
[Laughs] Yeah, right.
KvV: So being Canadian is a big part of your identity, even though your performance career has drawn you elsewhere in the world. Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah. I think that I feel proud of the values that Canada holds. I mean, of course, every country has its problems, every country has its divides, and disagreements among its people, but I think there are fundamental things about Canada that are really admirable. And I think there are some fundamental qualities of the Canadian music world that are admirable and some things that are I am extremely appreciative for.
I think often that things would have been maybe more difficult for me had I not been from Canada. I’ve received a lot of support. I’ve received Canada Council grants to go study, and I played on an instrument from the Canada Council for a number of years. I played in all of the local festivals and did the sort of local, provincial, and national competitions that got me some of my first performances.
It’s nice to be able to go back to some places that because of the nature of my career nowadays, it might not normally allow me to play in some of these places. Or – I’m trying to find the best way to say it –
KvV: I know what you mean. I have friends starting out their careers in young musician programs, in which they are shipped around the country to all of these smaller venues where the entire town shows up.
Yeah. I gained my most valuable experiences as a young performer by doing things like that. I did these tours for Jeunesses Musicales where I travelled through Quebec playing smaller towns. You learn a lot about trying to communicate with an audience. These people were so supportive of me and I’m grateful to have the opportunity on this tour to go back to a lot of these places.
You know, it’s wonderful to be able to play these recitals in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa, but it’s just as special for me to play in Sackville, St. John’s, Yellowknife, places like that. There’s an appreciation for great music no matter where you go. It’s that appreciation in the smaller centres that really helped me so much along my journey in my earlier years.
KvV: Going to these smaller centres – you mentioned communication being a big part of your series – did that influence your choice of repertoire for each concert?
Yes. You know, the thing that is kind of funny, it was only in the biggest cities that there needed to be tweaks to the program because of the nature of the series, or making sure repertoire wasn’t duplicated with other performers. But some of the places that I went to, I think that was kind of the violin concert that they had that year, so I could pretty much play anything I wanted.
So I wanted to put together a program that would work in a very cosmopolitan setting, a place where maybe there are 30 violin recitals a year, but also work in a place where maybe there hasn’t been a violin recital in 5 years, or maybe never. To find repertoire that would be accessible, but also sophisticated, and very representative of what the instrument is. I think that, if I’m going to play a concert in Iqaluit, I don’t want to play something so specialized that people don’t really get a sense of what a violin recital is, because there might not be another violin recital up there for who knows how long.
But, on the other hand, playing a piece like the Beethoven “Spring” Sonata, you can’t find a piece that is more instantly loveable and accessible, but you also can’t find a piece that is more gloriously sophisticated. It works for audiences on all levels.
Finding pieces like that was important to me. I found it was a great opportunity for me to bring back this wonderful Handel sonata that I’ve known for my whole life. It’s a piece that kids study in the Suzuki method, but then, it’s of course so much more than that. It’s often thought of as maybe Handel’s greatest instrumental compositions. But I think it’s cool that I could go to some of these places and see these kids from Suzuki groups going, “Oh hey, I know that one,” “I played that one,” or “My friend played that one.” Okay, maybe it’s a slightly simplified version of the Sonata, but it’s making that connection with young violinists, I think that’s important.
And then, I really wanted to commission a new piece for the tour, and that’s how this Bramwell Tovey piece came to be. And that’s one of the, really, the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. This was Bramwell writing this piece for me to commemorate this tour. Bramwell is someone that I’ve known for well over half of my life; I think I met him when I was 14, maybe 13. I had so many really special musical experiences with him and he gave me so many of my first important opportunities. To have him involved in this way and to write a piece for us – a piece that ended up being a total hit everywhere we’ve gone – it’s really one of the best things we’re doing on this trip. So that’s all kinds of wonderful.
KvV: Can you describe the style of the piece?
Well, I think the thing that’s really fun about the piece is that it goes in a lot of different emotional directions. It’s called Stream of Limelight, the idea being that as performers it’s like we are there in the limelight having to be actors, creating all sorts of different moods and characters. So there are very lyrical parts of the piece, there are very virtuosic parts of the piece, there’s fantastic interplay with the piano. It’s got a great narrative arc to it. So it’s a piece that I think really tells a story.
Violinistically, it’s fun to play and fun to listen to. Bramwell has a wonderful understanding of both the virtuosic nature of the violin and the piano. So there’s something I would say is quite theatrical about it, there are parts that seem sort of jazzy, and it’s really got a little bit of everything. It’s been wonderful to see such strong reactions to it everywhere we’ve been.
KvV: You have a CD that you’re bringing along to each concert. Is Stream of Limelight recorded on this CD?
Yes, it is. It’s a funny thing in the Classical world, you always do the tour and then at the end of the tour you record the CD. By the time the CD is out, you are kind of sick of playing it. And this was almost like one of those pop projects, where they record an album and then they tour the album. So it’s just sort of what we ended up doing.
KvV: Do you think this is kind of a direction for Classical music? I know of a Montreal-based chamber ensemble, Collectif9, and they did exactly that: they hopped in a minivan and toured across Canada with their first recording like a pop group.
Well, I think it depends on a lot of factors. I think that certainly there is some repertoire that you would really not want to put down on CD until you’ve had a lot of opportunity to perform it in public. With that Beethoven Sonata, for example, that is a piece that Andy and I have had a lot of experience with, over many years. So it was natural for us to record that at this point in our lives, whether we were touring it or not.
Yeah, maybe. You know, I think that there are definitely things to be learned from the marketing of more popular music. The marketing people in pop music are very good at what they do. It makes sense for us to pay attention to how they do it.
KvV: Correct me if I’m wrong, you made your orchestral premiere at 13 with the OSM and now you return this Fall to play the Dvorak Violin Concerto. Is it special for you to return to Montreal as the first professional orchestra you played with, or it just, at this point, you’ve played with so many over so many years?
Well, Montreal is always going to be very special for me. Not just for the first major orchestra that I had the chance to work with, but that they’ve been really very good to me, and very loyal to me for so many years. I’ve shared some really, really special experiences with the OSM, I’ve made some recordings with the orchestra. I would be very curious – maybe I should try to sit down and do this, maybe I should try to count up the number of concerts I’ve played with the OSM over the years – I’ve probably played with that orchestra more than any other orchestra in the world. Montreal and Toronto are probably the two orchestras that I’ve played with the most.
So, yes, going back to work with them is very special. These are people who are my friends, my close friends. These are people I enjoy seeing, I enjoy making music with. And it’s wonderful to play for the Montreal audience; I see people at my concerts – sometimes I’ll look out into the hall and see some smiling face, some person I’ve known for 25 years. So that is really, very special. The OSM is an orchestra with a strong emotional connection for me, but it’s also a real source of great pride for me, to have a close association with this orchestra that is one of Canada’s great calling cards to the world. Around the world, I think that for people who think of Classical music in Canada, the OSM is one of the very first things that springs to mind, sort of an ambassador for Canadian music and culture.
KvV: I’m sure you are probably one of the first artists that come to mind, too.
Well, that’s very nice. [Laughs] I hope so.
KvV: So, you are the OSM’s Artist in Residence this year, is it a continuing position or for this year only?
It’s for this season. I was also their Artist in Residence a few years ago and, well, I wish I could be their Artist in Residence every year. They’re fun to be with.
It’s sort of a continuation of a close relationship that we’ve had going for a long time. I have done this Artist in Residence thing with them a couple of times, I’ve been their ambassador for the Virée Classique – not this summer, but the summer before –, so it’s been wonderful to find ways to have these close working relationships continue. They inspire me very much.
KvV: Switching focus: This year being a very busy concert year for you, is it difficult to balance that sort of schedule with your family life?
It is complicated. It’s definitely complicated. The funny thing about trying to plan in this business is that it takes so long to implement any plan that you might have. Like, I might at a certain point think, “Wow, this is too busy, this is too crazy. I should arrange my schedule a little bit differently.” But then, you make that plan to do so, and those changes – you know, things are getting booked two years in advance – so it takes two years for those changes to take effect. And then by the time those changes take effect, your life has changed again and you might be looking for something different. So you’re always tweaking.
KvV: You might have adjusted to the fast pace.
Yeah, I think you’re always trying to find the happy medium between working enough to keep you really engaged and sharp and focused, and maybe working too much where you feel like you’re just constantly clawing away to try to get the next project ready. I feel like I’ve had a pretty good balance in my life. I feel fortunate to have people who, I think, guide me in good directions. My wife is amazing and takes care of all of us; the kids and myself. Travelling with the kids, as long as they’re not in school, our plan was to spend a lot of time together and to accomplish a lot of musical goals. Because once the kids are in school, I don’t want to just be gone all the time, that’s not fair to them and just not the way I want to live my life. So I will be much more careful with my time, I’ll be as efficient as possible and definitely spend less time away from home. That’s really starting for the ‘17–18 season, where things are going to be different, things are going to change. And I’m looking forward to that as well.
KvV: So your plans after the tour are not to go on a tour of all 50 States?
No that’s uh – [laughs]– that hasn’t been on my list yet. Actually, that sounds pretty fun. I’ll keep that in mind.
KvV: I mean, I think that might be a good one for your 50th birthday. Although, I know there’s an initiative to get Washington DC to be its own state, so it might have to be for your 51st.
Right, for my 51st birthday. I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll give you credit.
» James Ehnes @40: Canada Tour: www.jamesehnes.com.
» Ehnes and Armstrong play Handel, Beethoven, and Tovey October 18 (8PM), Palais Montcalm, salle Raoul-Jobin, Quebec City. www.clubmusicaldequebec.com.
» Ehnes in recital at LMMC Concerts, April 30, 2017 (3:30PM), Pollack Hall. www.lmmc.ca.