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Violinist James Ehnes to make his Aspen debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Benjamin EalovegaViolinist James Ehnes makes his Aspen debut with a concert on Saturday, March 13 at Harris Hall in the Aspen Music Festival's Winter Music series.
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ASPEN – Violinist James Ehnes has a notably massive repertoire – around 100 concertos alone, from the core pieces of the literature to the fairly obscure, and he adds works to his arsenal each season.

The 34-year-old credits the large repertoire first to his upbringing in small-town Manitoba. Brandon, where he grew up, is the second largest city in the province, but that translates to a population of just 40,000 or so, and Brandon is 100 miles north of North Dakota, and 150 west of Manitoba’s capital, Winnipeg. Ehnes has good things to say about the local college, Brandon University, where his father still teaches trumpet, but the town was not exactly teeming with classical music and musicians. Which meant plenty of opportunity to dig deep into violin compositions.

“Growing up in a small town gives you a lot of time to practice,” Ehnes said from Bradenton, Fla., his home for the past decade. “I developed an appetite for learning new pieces. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

Being far from the centers of music culture also meant that Ehnes, in his youth, wasn’t called on to perform often in major concerts, and thus wasn’t pressured to develop a narrow repertoire that he excelled at.

The Manitoba atmosphere worked in another way to push Ehnes toward building a broad foundation of violin pieces. When his career as a soloist did eventually start moving into high gear – around the time that he graduated from Juilliard – he had a mindset that seems a perfect reflection of small-town, Canadian modesty. If a concert presenter asked him to play a certain composition, Ehnes routinely said yes, rather than imposing his preferred pieces on an organization.

“I think for a lot of players, from the very start of the booking process, they say, ‘These two or three concertos are available for this season,'” Ehnes said. “Whereas I didn’t have the luxury of doing that as an up-and-coming artist from Canada. Whatever they wanted me to play, I was going to do it. They’d say, ‘We want Bruch or Mendelssohn, and I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ They wanted the repertoire, not me.”

Ehnes is now in a position where he can call a lot of the shots. Two years ago he earned a Grammy for his album of concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton. In 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. For a decade he has been recording at a remarkable pace of two albums a year – a reflection not only of his wide repertoire, but also of the dynamism of his performances.

Still, Ehnes favors the approach of giving presenters a broad set of options when it comes to programming his concerts. “It’s best, whenever possible, to give people what they’re looking for. Because they know their season, what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

It is not just an accommodation to music organizations driving that outlook. It is also the way Ehnes works best as an artist.

“Playing more pieces makes me more excited about what I do. And the most important thing is to find your way to be the most excited about the pieces you are playing,” he said. He notes that there are violinists who will play the same piece in two straight weeks’ worth of concerts, a scheduling tactic he avoids. “The first concert, the violinist is ready, it goes well, he forces himself to work. But by concert nine, 10, 11, how inspired is that person going to be to organize his day around practicing that piece again? It’s human nature to say, ‘It went well the day before, and the day before that; it will go fine today.’ And I think that’s cheating the audience.”

Ehnes makes his Aspen debut on Saturday, March 13, performing in the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series at Harris Hall. The program is highlighted by Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata, a piece known for its length, difficulty, and the sharp contrasts between its three movements. It is not exactly a new piece for Ehnes; the “Kreutzer” has been a favorite of his since middle school. But he resurrected it this season for the first time in several years, and this will be the first time he performs it with pianist Orion Weiss, his accompanist for the Aspen concert. The program also includes Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and an unaccompanied Bach partita.

A month ago, Ehnes appeared with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Strauss’ Violin Concerto in D minor. He didn’t know the unsung piece at all until the director of the orchestra floated the idea of playing it.

“But I’m a big fan [of Strauss],” Ehnes said. “It was a good experience to learn it. I don’t think there will be a big call for it. But it’s educational, constructive, fun. And it keeps me fresh.”

Shortly after Aspen, Ehnes travels to Glasgow to play Britten’s Violin Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony. It’s a composition he learned 20 years ago but has never played with an orchestra.

“It’s an interesting process to go back to a piece I learned at that age and rework it,” Ehnes, who is also at work on an all-Bartok recording. “In a very practical sense, I’ve figured out a lot of things since then about how to play the violin, and get the ideas across.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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