Musical variety is the spice of life for violinist James Ehnes

James Ehnes. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

James Ehnes is basking in the glow of another Grammy win.

The virtuoso violinist received his latest gong for a recording of a concerto by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. The co-commission is not the first piece Kernis has written for Ehnes.

“About 12 years ago I was doing recital for The Proms and I got a call you don’t get very often,” Ehnes said in an interview with ARTSFILE before two concerts in Southam Hall March 20 and 21 conducted by his longtime friend and mentor Bramwell Tovey.

“They said ‘We have some extra money in our budget, would you be interested in commissioning a piece for this recital?’ It was seven months before the concert.” In the music world that’s short notice for a new work, but he thought he’d give Kernis a call.

“I thought there was little chance that a composer as busy as Kernis would have the time or the interest, but I thought I would get in touch with him, get to know him and at least start some sort of a dialogue.

“To my great surprise he said ‘Let’s do it’.”

He wrote that piece for Ehnes in 2007 and shortly after that the two started talking about a concerto, a piece that took almost 10 years to put together.

“The recording was of the U.S. premiere in Seattle. They have a really great in-house producer and engineer.” The engineer told Ehnes that he thought there was a CD in the recording and turns out he was dead on.

“It’s tough in live music because if someone coughs at the wrong place” it’s a problem. But they had enough material to work with and the result was a Grammy.

Ehnes has a strong relationship with music in the city of Seattle. He is the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society and sets the lineup for the annual festival every July.

He won’t be playing Kernis in Ottawa. Instead he’ll cue up the Sibelius Violin Concerto, another in his quiver.

He has played it before on the NACO tour of Atlantic Canada in Halifax and the third movement in the inspirational cocnert in the community of the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, the home of the Mi’kmaw poet laureate Rita Joe and her family.

Ehnes will be back on tour with NACO in May with concerts in Utrecht, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Hitting the road with NACO is a real treat for Ehnes.

“This will be my third tour with them. It helps that a lot of these people are some of my really close friends, people I have known for many many years. I feel the orchestra has such a strong desire and pride to being the representative of the nation.

He also appreciates the attitude of the orchestra on tour.

“Whether playing Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto or at Eskasoni or in Iqaluit, there is the same devotion to setting the right example. It runs like a well-oiled machine and it’s an example for other orchestras out there.”

He is also looking forward to connecting with Tovey. Their relationship goes back some 30 years when Ehnes was a teenaged whiz kid in Brandon, Manitoba and Tovey was the new music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

“He really took me under his wing and gave me so many wonderful opportunities. He never made me feel like a kid. He made me feel like a colleague,  that I had things of value to contribute.” The two have many concerts to look back on and one Grammy win for a recording, with the Vancouver Symphony, of concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton.

Ehnes says that the musical relationship works so well because the two share the same musical aesthetic.

“The chances are that our musical instincts on things will be similar. That makes it simple to begin with. If I see him start to move in a certain way I know what that means.”

It makes life easier for a soloist if that sympatico exists.

If it doesn’t, well, that’s trouble.

“There are those relationships when you realize you are just coming from a different place musically Then it’s the job to make the best of it.

“One of my colleagues was saying recently that he played with so and so and had never played with them again.

“‘They don’t hire me,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they like my playing.’ I asked ‘Do you like their conducting? ‘No.'” Enough said.

Ehnes plays so much music trying to pin him down on a favourite is tough.

“The best part about my job is that there is so much variety. There is so much different music that I love to play.” His favourite is the one he’s playing at the time.

“Next week it’s something else. Some colleagues feel differently. They want to live in a certain world for awhile. But I need more variety. It keeps me on my toes to be shifting repertoire a lot. It keeps me practicing.”

These days, however, he’s going to be playing a lot of Beethoven. He has just recorded the sonatas with his long-time colleague pianist Andrew Armstong. And they are taking that on the road, including to Chamberfest this summer when the duo will perform 10 violin sonatas in two powerhouse concerts in Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

Ehnes may be a musical butterfly gathering nectar in a field of classical flowers, but he is deeply committed to his wife, his family and the Boston Red Sox.

He is still basking in the World Series triumph of last season and the eternal optimist believes the Sox will repeat. Even the nagging doubt of someone who watched the Sox suffer through the late 2oth century — Bill Buckner anyone? — can’t deter him.

It’s almost spring after all.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra
Conducted by Bramwell Tovey; soloist James Ehnes
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 20 and 21 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.