NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Paying it forward with James Ehnes

James Ehnes plays the Korngold Violin Concerto during the NACO Canada 150 tour concert in St. John's, NL on Thursday evening. Photo: Fred Cattroll

MONCTON, N.B. • For a young boy in Brandon, Manitoba, with dreams about a career as a solo violinist, moments learning from professional performers were worth their weight in gold dust.

It was that mentoring that James Ehnes got in his home prairie city about an hour west of Winnipeg that helped fuel his own ambitions. And that’s why, he says he is doing his own version of paying forward as a participant in the NACO Canada 150 tour of Atlantic Canada.

On one day he was in the small town of Bay Roberts, NL, offering tips on technique and experiences and answering a slew of questions from the children in Deanne Delahunty’s traditional music class in the Amalgamated Academy.

The next he was headed to coach dozens of your people from across New Brunswick who are involved in the province’s Sistema program.

Ehnes was on NACO’s tour of Northern Canada a few years back and that experience has, he says, helped him buy into the message of music and education that the organization is preaching.

When he is talking to young people, Ehnes says, he is trying to offer “a little bit of encouragement. And I guess I’m just trying import curiosity. Generally that’s what gets kids going. ”

“I remember very clearly the experiences growing up in Brandon that I would have when people would come through. Those that made the effort to work with us, that was so beneficial. It had a lasting impact.

James Ehnes tells students in Bay Roberts, NL, how he became a professional musician. Photo: Peter Robb

James Ehnes works with a student in Bay Roberts, NL. Photo: Fred Cattroll

“In the context of a tour like this, to be totally honest, I buy into the concept of the National Arts Centre. It fills a very important role and it has beautiful aspirations.

“Generally speaking, if I’m doing an orchestra tour with a “regular” symphony, sometimes there will be a couple of things. And I do do a fair number of master class for more advanced students, but … it can be so much more and I think everyone within the NAC makes such a big effort” to go the extra step.

“I think I’d be missing out on the fun if I were just to play my concerto and hang out in my room, practice and order room service.”

When Ehnes goes into a class he has a general idea of what he wants to do but he’s fully prepared to adjust on the fly.

“With teaching it’s all about trying to find out a way to address specific issues.” It can be easier, he says, for the students to pick up something by example.

Contact with young musicians leaves Ehnes optimistic “but proactive” about the future of his world in Canada.

“It’s an ecosystem. You want to nurture it, to take care of it, but ultimately it’s pretty darn hard to kill it, no matter what you do. I think Canada does have a very rich musical culture. And there has always been a critical mass of people to keep that going.”

And to carry it along the music culture needs an audience.

“Ultimately it is about sharing a message. Even if you rely on music as sort of a personal sanctuary that’s still someone sharing a message with the performer.”

People experience music in a solitary way, on headphones, in the car or in the bedroom, players need to remember it’s about sharing a message, he says. In the long distant past it was always a public event, either in a church service or in a noble’s court.

Ehnes says it doesn’t matter what type of music you are talking about. It may be human nature to categorize things but in the end, he added, there is good music well played and bad music badly performed.

“For me those are the more important distinctions. Even music not to my taste but if it’s well-played you can appreciate it.”

On the NACO tour, Ehnes is performing Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto except in Eskasoni and Halifax where he’ll play a piece by Jean Sibelius.

The Korngold has become an important piece for Ehnes.

“The concerto is film music. It’s themes are from different film scores of his. It has that lush harmonic accessibility but I think it’s a very honest piece. It’s beautiful. Korngold’s language is very special and when you get inside it, the way he wrote was unique. It’s highly sophisticated and idiosyncratic.

“It’s the sort of piece where nothing lands squarely. … I did a recording of it about a decade ago with Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony and the album got a lot of attention.” It won a JUNO in 2008 for Classical Recording of the Year by a large ensemble and a Grammy. The disc also included violin concertos by Walton and Barber.

That success has resulted in these three concertos being identified with Ehnes.

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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.