What sorts of things does James Ehnes — recording artist, concert violinist and artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) — like to do in his spare time?
Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, his frequent musical collaborator, has the skinny.
In an interview at SCMS’ Summer Festival last July, she revealed that Ehnes fixes cars, tracks baseball statistics, writes for the Huffington Post and would rather repair his own plumbing than call in someone else to do it. He also — why not? — recently took apart and reassembled his piano.
“He rebuilt the action,” Moretti says. “All 88 keys.”
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Ehnes and Moretti will both feature prominently in SCMS’ 2015 Winter Festival, which opens Friday, Jan. 23.
Spanning two weekends, the festival brings back favorite performers, including violinist Erin Keefe, cellist Robert deMaine and pianists Anton Nel and Orion Weiss. It also features four newcomers: pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, artistic director of the BRAVO! Vail Valley Music Festival; violinist Yosuke Kawasaki, concertmaster with Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; cellist Yegor Dyachkov, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. artist of the year; and Beth Guterman Chu, principal violist with the St. Louis Symphony.
As for repertoire, Ehnes, speaking last summer, sounded most excited about four concertos from Vivaldi’s “L’Estro Armonico” (“Harmonic Inspiration”). The pieces, to be performed Jan. 25, are “prototypes for the concerto as we know it,” Ehnes says. “They were originally written for very, very small ensembles at the orphanage where he worked. So we’re going to be doing them one player to a part, as it seems they were originally conceived.”
This will be the first time SCMS has performed the pieces. Also on the roster are works by Bach, Martinu, Elgar, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schubert, Turina, Franck, von Dohnányi and Debussy.
Last summer was the first festival Ehnes programmed without having SCMS’ late founder Toby Saks as a sounding board. Ehnes shows few insecurities about having sole charge of the festival, because Saks taught him so thoroughly what he needed to do.
Still, he misses her, especially when the festival is in full swing.
“After every concert, that’s still one of the hardest times for me,” he acknowledges. “At intermission she was the one person who I could ask how it was and really, really believe her.”
Moretti sees Ehnes’ assumption of the leadership role in SCMS as all but inevitable — and a perfect match for his talents. One might guess he’d have to be positively manic to accomplish all that he accomplishes. But Ehnes, instead, exudes an unassuming calm.
“A lot of driven people end up having enormous egos, right?” Moretti says. “When you read biographies of people or see individuals who end up making their way to the top of organizations or succeeding in life, it’s often at the expense of others. … But in no way is he that way.”
His musicianship — that’s at the heart of his character, she says.
“He can get through the Paganini Caprices,” Moretti says, “and make it look so effortless — and they’re extremely difficult. He figures out a way.
“It’s easy to stand on the merits of just technically playing,” Moretti notes. “But that’s not James at all. … He plays the violin at such an extraordinary level that then the music can flow from him, the music-making side.”
That music-making instinct comes into fruitful play with his colleagues. If something doesn’t sound quite right in rehearsal, Moretti says, he’ll make a sour face, then analyze and sort out the problem.
“Just the same as fixing the car, figuring out how to rebuild a piano,” she laughs. “All these things!”
His sense of humor is the icing on the cake. That comes through not just in his stage appearances, but in the pieces he’s written for Huffington Post. One essay on his native Canada — in which he describes Australia as “Hot Canada” — is a particularly zany gem.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org