Violinist James Ehnes Talks Tchaikovsky, Collaborators and Coincidences

Nov 8, 2019

Violinist James Ehnes

Grammy­-winning violinist James Ehnes is in Georgia to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony and Donald Runnicles November 7–9. Ehnes grew up in Canada and now lives in Florida with his wife and kids. He sat down with GPB’s Sarah Zaslaw to chat about family, coincidences, collaborators, recording – and the greatness of Tchaikovsky.

Highlights

On whether musical and off-stage personalities tend to match

In my experience, they generally do. Music, ideally, should be a very real and personal expression, and if you like someone, chances are you’re going to like the way they make music.

I feel really lucky to be in a business where people are generally really nice. Sometimes there are these attempts to try to turn classical music into something more exciting – oh, well, Juilliard’s so competitive, or oh, “Mozart in the Jungle” or all this – but basically, once you get to real professionals in the business, everybody’s worked really hard, and everybody is, for the most part, really respectful of the fact that everyone else has, too, and people are nice.

On the flexibility of recording as a free agent

If there’s ever a difference of opinion – if the artist wants to do one thing but the label wants to do another, or if there’s a great project that the artist has the opportunity to put together but maybe the label’s resources are already committed for that time – it struck me for my life to be more beneficial to be sort of a free agent, because if a company gets in touch, or an orchestra or a presenter, and they say there’s an opportunity to do something special here, then I can just do it.

For example, just last week I was in St. Louis with the St. Louis Symphony and my very good friend Stéphane Denève, who’s their new music director. Stephane and I had played the John Williams concerto together several times so we programmed it in St. Louis, and John Williams was in town, and we were able to work through the piece with him, and it’s like, well, let’s make a CD – so we did! That’s the sort of thing where, under a traditional recording contract, it would not have been able to come together as quickly or as fluidly as it did. (Ehnes’s discography.)

On his Ehnes Quartet partner, Macon-based violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti

We met as kids at Meadowmount, a summer program for strings up in upstate New York, when we were about 13. When I moved down to Florida, we reconnected then and started doing a lot of playing together. We have an amazing musical connection where we play so magically well together, we feel things in the same way, we hear things in the same way. She and her husband are two of my best friends, and their kids are like cousins to our kids. It’s one of those ideal things where life and work and family, it all kind of comes together.

On this weekend’s conductor, Donald Runnicles

He’s one of my favorite musical collaborators as well as one of my favorite people. His music-making is so intense, and that becomes for me a real opportunity to dive deep into the piece and have a special experience. When you’re playing with him, he is so sympathetic, but never accompanimental in the bad sense – always collaborative and enriching and inspiring to the soloist to play a little more beautifully or with a little more excitement.

On his fluky connection to Runnicles’s wife, pianist Adelle Eslinger Runnicles

In one of these incredible weird, small-world things, his wife is from my hometown. Adelle is from Brandon, Manitoba. She was Maria in the high school musical production of “West Side Story” that my mom was setting when I was a little boy. I was five years old or something and going to these rehearsals and I was totally in love with Adelle Eslinger.  

On his earliest memory of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

I remember kind of discovering the piece when I was about 10. My grandmother had given me a cassette tape of Nathan Milstein playing Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos, and I had my little Walkman, and I would walk to school listening to this piece. I knew at that point that it was beyond me but it became a goal that if I just get better and better then I can learn this piece.

On the Tchaikovsky concerto itself

It is a great example of Tchaikovsky’s art. There are beautiful melodies literally all the time. Any given section is likely to be someone’s favorite section. Sometimes with Tchaikovsky, just because his music is just so overflowing with beauty and excitement and melody and virtuosity, it’s overlooked just how well it is composed and what a truly great craftsman he was. Part of the reason the piece works so well is the proportions are absolutely beautiful and there’s nothing excess to it. The orchestration is lush and grand, but in a way very clean and precise.

On not describing the trajectory of a piece

That gets into the dangerous territory of expecting someone to have the same experience as you have. I remember one time playing an incredibly intense performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto where, at the end of it, I was a shaking emotional basket case. Afterwards someone in a really heartfelt way said, “Thank you for that performance, I’d had such a stressful day at work and it’s been a stressful time in life and to just go into the concert hall and hear your beautiful music and relax and just close my eyes, it meant so much to me.” And I thought, well, that’s a really weird thing to say, from my perspective. But I’m so glad it meant something to them. One of the great things about this art form is it’s not so literal. You can take it for what you need it to be.

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Ehnes plays Shostakovich in Seoul