An interview with Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes, new artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, which holds its Summer Festival July 2-29, 2012.
>>> In the winter of 1995, Canadian violinist James Ehnes was in a hotel room somewhere — he can’t recall what city exactly — when he got a call from Seattle cellist Toby Saks, asking if he’d like to come out and perform at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.
The 19-year-old violinist had never been to Seattle. So he said yes.
“I had a great time,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “And I haven’t missed a summer since.”
Back then, he had no idea that in 17 years’ time, he would take over as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. But he may be Saks’ ideal successor. (SCMS’s monthlong 2012 Summer Festival, the first with Ehnes at the helm, commences Monday.) Some outsiders might wonder how he could possibly squeeze this new job into his already jampacked schedule. Ehnes has a remarkably busy career as a concert violinist, a chamber player and a Grammy-winning recording artist. What’s more, he lives about as far from Seattle as it’s possible to get in the continental United States — on the west coast of Florida.
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But in conversation, it becomes clear that SCMS and Seattle are close to Ehnes’ heart. From their first meeting, he and Saks became close friends and, over time, Saks began to turn to him as an informal sounding board about festival programming. When she mentioned to him five years ago that she was thinking of retiring and wondered if he had any interest in becoming artistic director, Ehnes gave the prospect serious thought.
“It’s been great just going out there and playing,” he says, “and if Toby had gone on directing the festival, I would have been happy just performing there forever.”
But with Saks gone, he realized, it was possible a new director might somehow shift the direction of the festival in ways that, for Ehnes, would compromise its magic. The more he thought about it, the more he felt that this was a very important part of his life. If he wanted to keep it the way it was, he might just have to do it himself.
At the four-night Winter Festival in February, Ehnes couldn’t have been a more genial and approachable emcee for the musical showcase. He came off as such a regular, affable fellow that his pyrotechnic talents on the violin were almost shocking in their wizardry. The Times of London, reviewing Ehnes’ handling of Paganini’s “24 Caprices,” called his playing “more than merely thrilling. … This is not simply a high-wire act. … It’s playing of phenomenal control, allied to musicianship of the highest order.”
That talent has been apparent from an early age. While he doesn’t recall when he saw his first violin, Ehnes says that by the age of four his heart was set on the instrument. “I wanted a violin for what seemed like ages before I got one. I got it for Christmas, just before my fifth birthday.”
Ehnes was born in 1976 in Brandon, Manitoba, about 130 miles west of Winnipeg. His father was a trumpet teacher at Brandon University and his mother was a ballet dancer. “I was surrounded by music and musicians,” he says. His father gave him music lessons early on and he thrived on them. “I think when you’re a little kid, you like to feel you’re good at something. It got me some attention.”
Recordings initially played as key a role in the development of his musical taste as live concerts — one motivation behind his own prolific recording career (he’s made more than 30 CDs, covering a widely varied repertoire). As he explains, classical musicians touring across Canada made occasional whistle-stops in Brandon, but much of his acquaintance with the great classics, both for violin and other instruments, came from his parents’ music collection: “Recordings were important to me in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily be for someone growing up in New York, London or Toronto.”
These days, recordings are equally valued by him as a means of bottling musical lightning. “Music never exists, in a way,” he explains. It’s experienced — and then it’s gone. Having something permanent you can hold in your hands, he says, is “definitely a feeling of accomplishment.”
Ehnes feels Saks, who’s staying on as SCMS’s associate artistic director, has groomed him well for his new leadership position. “Being able to shadow her for close to two decades,” he says, “has really given me insight on how to continue such a great organization.” The distance between Seattle and Florida, he adds, hasn’t been a problem: “Nowadays, even if two people are across the street from each other, they’re doing all their business by email. I find ways to get myself to Seattle periodically throughout the year to make sure I’m a presence to all the members of the board and the people out there.”
When asked what he’s doing in Florida — an unlikely base for a top-tier classical musician — he jokes, “Escaping the Canadian winters.” Then he explains more seriously that his wife, Kate, whom he met when they were both at Juilliard, is a dancer (now retired) who joined the Sarasota Ballet when she finished school. They moved to nearby Bradenton, where they have a house and where their daughter was born.
Ehnes’ plans for SCMS’s winter and summer festivals involve no radical overhauls. “There’s no reason, with an organization this strong, to tear it all down and build it up all over again,” he says. “My aim is not to change it but continue it.”
Still, he’s made some notable innovations since taking over. One is the inclusion in every program of at least one piece that’s never been performed at the festival.
The growing reputation of the festival has attracted top-flight musicians — concert soloists, prizewinners, principal players in acclaimed orchestras — from around the world.
“Every year,” Ehnes says, “people with major, major careers are kind of desperate to get out to Seattle.”
But those desires, he cautions, have to be weighed against the desires of the audience.
“There’s a certain expectation that old favorites will come back,” he notes. “It’s tricky, finding that balance of returning friends and new faces.”
What comes through in Ehnes’ conversation is what a personal touchstone his Seattle experiences are. For the players, the social ambience of the festivals is as important as the music, he says. Rather than staying in hotels, musicians lodge in the homes of Seattleites when they’re here, and Saks’ house is at the center of the communal activities.
“The fun aspect is one of the most important things about the festival. People always talk about that element when talking about Seattle,” he says. “You develop friendships, not necessarily even with people you’re performing with — and that’s rare.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com