The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Canadian violinist James Ehnes discusses Bartok, which he performs this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

October 9, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

At 36, Canadian violinist James Ehnes (below) is one of the hot names in the classical music world today.

Ehnes will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain. He will solo in Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Also on the program are Berlioz’ Overture to “Beatrice and Benedict” and Brahms’ powerful Symphony No. 4, which is among The Ear’s Top 5 symphonies.

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $16.50-$78.50. Call the Overture Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or visit:

For Program Notes by trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor J. Michael Allsen, visit:

As a soloist, Ehnes tours hectically with concerts back and forth across North America (including his first tour to Northern Canada); to Europe via the UK, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. He tries to travel as much as possible with his wife, Kate, and their new baby daughter Caroline.

In terms of recordings, he is continuing his Bartok collection with Volume 2 of works for violin and piano with Andrew Armstrong (Chandos) slated for release in January 2013; and with a disc of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Britten’s Violin Concerto (Onyx), which is due out in summer 2013.

An avid chamber musician, Ehnes will tour with his string quartet, the Ehnes Quartet (below), and lead the winter and summer festivals of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, where he is the Artistic Director.

Ehnes has an extensive discography of over 25 recordings featuring music ranging from J.S. Bach to John Adams. His recordings have been honored with many international awards and prizes, including a Grammy (for concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton, below), a Gramophone Award and 6 Juno Awards.

Ehnes was born in 1976 in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. He began violin studies at the age of four, and at age nine became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin. He made his major orchestral debut at 13 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He studied at Juilliard, where he won top honors, and elsewhere.

He has won numerous awards and prizes, including the first-ever Ivan Galamian Memorial Award, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Virginia Parker Prize, and a 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant. In October 2005, James was honored by Brandon University with a Doctor of Music degree and in July 2007 he became the youngest person ever elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada.

He plays the “Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715. He currently lives in Bradenton, Florida with his wife and daughter.  As for little known facts, Ehnes is a huge baseball fan and lover of classic cars.

Ehens (below, in a photo by Benjamin Ealovega) recently agreed to an email interview with The Ear:

What would you like to say about Bartok’s status as a composer today and about his Violin Concerto No. 2? Do you have a special view of his work? What should we listen for in the concerto and your interpretation?

I think Bartok (below) is one of the musical giants, not just of the 20th century but of all time. I’ve devoted a lot of time to study, performance, and recordings of his works, so that has given me a wonderful opportunity to hear and understand his career trajectory — from someone steeped in the late-Romantic traditions, through his groundbreaking studies of folk-music and his time as one of the more avant-garde composers in Europe, to his final days in America and the somewhat more harmonically “toned-down” music of this time.

I can’t say I have a favorite “type” or period of Bartok’s music; like so many of the great composers, he was masterful in many different ways and was able to create extremely powerful works using various different compositional styles and techniques.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 was the only violin concerto published during his lifetime. The first concerto is an early composition, with quite an interesting history, but it was not published until the 1950s. The Second Concerto is one of his most masterful works, not just in its musical impact upon first hearing, but also upon repeated and intensive study. Bartok’s understanding of each instruments’ capabilities was unsurpassed, and in this work he taxes the soloist and each instrument of the orchestra to the maximum!

For listeners with some background in music theory, I suggest listening for Bartok’s usage of 12 tone rows within traditionally tonal writing; for the relationships of material between the first and third movements; and for how the entire piece is inspired by the idea of variations (it was Bartok’s original desire to write a set of variations, not a concerto per se).

I believe this is your Madison debut. Do you have anything to say about Madison and the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its conductor John DeMain (below)?

This is indeed my first time with the Madison Symphony – it’s my first trip to Madison for any reason. I’m very much looking forward to it. I have heard great things over the years about Madison from various friends, and during my many trips to Door County (which seems to be full of Madison people in the summer!). I have been told I need to go to a certain ice-cream store … I’ll have to get the name.

Was there an Aha! Moment — some composer, piece or performance — when you knew you wanted to be a concert violinist?

There was never really an “aha” moment for me, in terms of when I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up around musicians (my father was the trumpet professor at Brandon University for 38 years), so I knew being a professional musician was a valid option!

I think a lot of young people who begin to study music see music as only ever being a hobby; I was in quite a different situation, as all of the musicians I knew were professionals. So when I realized that I had a certain amount of ability with the violin, I suppose it just seemed natural that I might want to make a career out of it.

Is there anything else you would like to say or add?

I used to have terrible stage fright – the idea of playing up there for all those people made me feel ill. But when I was at my first national competition when I was about 10, something in me sort of “snapped” — I was perfectly calm. And, for the most part, I’m still pretty calm today (under normal circumstances…).

I think that if I still battled stage fright with any regularity, it would be impossible for me to do what I do. But I love it. I love to play for people, and I love the opportunity to experience this amazing music from the driver’s seat!

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