NACO’s Canada 150 tour: A concert in a classroom

James Ehnes talks violin technique with Grade 8 student Jenna Bowering. Photo: Peter Robb

BAY ROBERTS, NL • The colours of old St. John’s are the pastel pinks, blues, yellows and greens of the Jellybean Houses. The landscape outside the city offered a different palette of steel grey water, dark green conifers and browns ranging from reddish to wheat on the trip to this small town on the shore of Conception Bay.

The ice hasn’t melted away yet from the ponds and bays along the way, but for the 45 or so students of Deanne Delahunty’s music class, a morning visit by James Ehnes, the Canadian violin virtuoso was a musical ice-breaker.

From Grade 4 to Grade 8, the music students of the Amalgamated Academy play violin, accordion, piano and guitars as they learn about the traditional music of their home province. The beginning students also learn some classical music.

The hour-long session inside the music room included performances by the children of traditional music such as Cooley’s Reel and some of the Bach violin sonata as played by Ehnes.

He worked with a couple of young soloists and together they sharpened technique. The children picked up quickly what Ehnes was saying and this listener could hear their sound improving just in an instant.

Then came the questions, mostly from the Grade 4s who weren’t afraid to speak up.

Q. What’s your favourite composer?

A. Don’t have one.

Q. When did you start playing the violin?

A. I was five years old.

Q. How can you play so fast?

A. Lots and lots of practice.

For Deanne Delahunty, the opportunity to host a talented artist such as Ehnes is a rare treat.

“It’s an inspiration just to see someone like that live.” she said in the rush after the session.

For Grade 8 student, Jenna Bowering, the experience was “amazing. It was really mind-blowing. I can’t believe how fast his fingers move even when he was playing without me. It was really great.”

Ehnes knew she had learned to play the violin through the Suzuki method of learning to play an instrument because of the type of music she was playing. Ehnes told the class he had actually met Shinichi Suzuki as a youth. Bowering said she has been playing the violin since Grade 2.

After the session in Bay Roberts, Ehnes headed back the St. John’s to join members of NACO on top of a very blustery Signal Hill for a photo op with the Shallaway Youth Choir, Alexander Shelley, the music director of NACO and local media.

The events were two of several outreach sessions in the Newfoundland capital on Thursday including master classes at Memorial University. In all, NACO musicians and NAC staff will participate in some 80 outreach and education events across Atlantic Canada on this tour that sees its final concert on May 6 in Halifax.

All of which leads to a concert Thursday night in the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s during which Ehnes will educate an even larger crowd on his prowess as a performer.

Share Post
Written by

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.