Interview with PAMELA MARGLES
Just thirty-three years old, Canadian violinist James Ehnes is regarded, in the words of Gramophone Magazine, as “one of the most gifted and charismatic fiddlers around”. His many recordings have earned him six Junos and a Grammy, among other awards.
His most recent album, Homage, showcases the collection of twelve historic violins and violas owned by David Fulton. On the CD, the accompanying DVD, and in the booklet notes written by Ehnes, he plays and discusses the rare instruments. First up is the violin he has been performing on for the past ten years, the ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius from 1715. It’s the instrument he’ll be playing when he returns to Toronto this month. His schedule includes three performances of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony under Stéphane Denève. In between, he gives a recital in Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
I met with Ehnes at his Toronto hotel last July. The previous evening he had given a recital at the Carlu with Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker to open the Toronto Summer Music Festival. This was what he called a day off, even though after our interview he was off to tape a CBC program, This is My Music, and meet with his long-time manager, Walter Homburger. I started by asking him about his recent performances as a pianist:
When I first read the programme of the concert you gave in Timmins in May I was certain there must be a mistake. It listed you as playing a Mozart Violin Concerto and a Shostakovitch Piano Concerto.
Ehnes: That’s right - and then I played a Mozart Piano Concerto and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in Newfoundland about a month ago.
What inspired you to start performing on the piano? I can’t think of another active violinist who would – or could – do this.
Ehnes: A pianist that I play violin with a lot, Eduard Laurel, loves four-hand and two-piano repertoire. We would occasionally do some French repertoire, or some Brahms Hungarian Dances or Dvorák Slavonic Dances in a recital. But I didn’t perform any solo piano from the time I was about sixteen until very recently.
I had some time left at the end of a recording of Czech violin music, so I recorded a Dvorak Humoresque on the piano. Then for the Fritz Kreisler CD I recorded a little waltz he wrote for piano. In both cases I thought, “Well, if it doesn’t sound any good we don’t have to put it on the CD.” And then when Andy Russo and I were doing the John Adams CD he wanted to do this great two-piano piece, Hallelujah Junction.
But those are all a long way from piano concertos.
Ehnes: I’m working with new management in Japan. They listened to all my recordings and they said, “We like your piano playing very much.” I was honoured, so when they said I should play more piano, I thought, why not? And so this past year I organized some piano performances. Fifteen years of not performing solo piano seriously have taken a toll, and the performances I did this year were really hard. Some of them went better than others.
But I’m glad I did them. It is humbling because I play violin with some of the most monstrous pianists around. I am not fooling myself into thinking that I can do what they can do. But when I am at my best at the piano, it sounds like I want it to sound.
Which instrument did you start on first?
Ehnes: I started studying piano after the violin, when I was eight. My Dad told me that depending on how well I practiced violin - how much I was able to accomplish - I would get a big prize. This was smart because kids don’t realize that it’s not how much time you spend practicing, but what you accomplish that matters. So whenever I would learn a piece, or memorize something, my Dad would give me points. He didn’t give me just one or two points, it was always something like fifteen thousand points. And I needed a huge number of points for this prize, something like ten million.
I would practice and he would say, “This was a great day. You got twelve thousand points.” He would write the number down on a sheet of paper and put it on top of his bureau,
which was too high for me to reach. I was much too good a kid to take a chair and climb up there and count my points. I worked very, very hard. The day came when my Dad said I had the right number of points and was going to get my prize. I remember thinking it might be a new baseball glove, which would be great. I stood by the front window and a huge truck pulled up. I was going out of my mind – I couldn’t imagine what it was. When they rolled a piano out of the truck, it was the most exciting thing ever.
If my Dad had told me it was important for my musical education that I learn to play the piano, I would have thought, “Okay, fine.” But the fact that I earned it - it was my piano. You couldn’t keep me away from it.
So this was serious?
Ehnes: The story of my life as a pianist sounds like a teenage romance, with all these ups and downs. I love playing the piano, and I have a beautiful piano. There was a time when I took piano very seriously, though it never supplanted the violin.
But when I was sixteen I played in a piano competition with a juror who had been on the jury of a violin competition in Quebec that I had won. He took me aside – it was really awful in retrospect - and said, “If you play the piano you are taking opportunities away from kids out there that only play the piano.” He read me the riot act. It was really depressing. I wasn’t hurt by what he did but it was a rotten thing to have happen. So piano got shuffled further and further back. When I was at Juilliard I spent a lot of time studying and playing the piano, but I would learn repertoire only to a certain point - maybe eighty-five percent. I didn’t really have any reason to polish my playing.
Then you don’t identify the sound of the violin as your voice?
Ehnes: It’s not like the violin is who I am. The violin is my medium for doing what I want to do. It may be what I’m best at to communicate music. But I also conduct, and play viola. Whatever the instrument happens to be, the idea is to get across a certain musical ideal.
I’m never going be a Horowitz. But that A major Mozart Concerto that I did out in Newfoundland, particularly the second movement, sounded like I think it should sound.
Are there things you can accomplish on the piano that you can’t with the violin?
Ehnes: For me it’s all about the repertoire.
More, or different?
Ehnes: Always more, but the fact is that so much of it is different. The violin doesn’t have any Chopin. To me, his music is the greatest gift.
Do you see yourself ever giving up the violin?
Ehnes: Not unless I had to, no. For me it would be tragic if I had to stop playing the violin.
I understand last night was your first recital with pianist Jon Kimura Parker.
Ehnes: Yes, even though Jackie and I have been friends for fifteen years.
Is it difficult to adjust to a new partner?
Ehnes: A major part of the collaborative process is the psychological aspect of getting to know someone. If they are playing a wrong note in a rehearsal, how do you tell them? There can be feelings involved. Whereas with a friend if something doesn’t go right you can just laugh about it and make fun of each other. It was so easy working with Jackie
But it is, as you say, a collaborative process.
Ehnes: Not always. Violinists have so much great repertoire on both the serious side and the lighter side. But there are pianists of Jackie’s stature who would not play a lighter piece like Paul Schoenfield’s Square Dance, which Jackie and I performed last night as an encore. Believe it or not, there are pianists out there whose egos won’t allow them to play the Ravel Violin Sonata. They say it shows off the violin too much. “I’m an equal partner here,” they’ll say.
Of course you want to work with the best pianists. Some pianists are ideal for a cycle of Beethoven Sonatas. but for the lighter side of the violin repertoire - all the wonderful pieces by Kreisler, Wieniawski and Sarasate - you might want someone who is more in the traditional mold of accompanist. So it’s great when you find somebody like Jackie who, whatever he plays, will play great and enjoy it.
You certainly cover both sides of the violin repertoire. Last night you played a number of lighter pieces, even though it was quite a serious program.
Ehnes: I’d say I have equal love for both. I do sometimes like to put a program together with some little bonbons. When you play Kreisler audiences know and love that. It’s a good thing for everyone.
Is the lighter music getting overlooked today?
Ehnes: I think unfortunately the less serious works are going through a tough stage right now. We hear them in the conservatories but never in the concert halls. And that strikes me as strange.
Perlman’s recitals are wonderful because he’ll play both serious works and encore pieces. And I don’t think anyone would say that Itzhak Perlman is a lightweight.
You rarely hear even a Paganini concerto today. Pieces that I was performing ten or fifteen years ago I’m not playing now. I suppose part of that is that it’s more interesting to hear an 18 year old playing a Vieuxtemps or a Wieniawski concerto than a 33 year old – especially when they can have me play Beethoven or Bach. But it’s something that I think about.
I must admit that while I was listening to Homage, I wondered why you didn’t use some more profound pieces like the Bach Chaconne to demonstrate these instruments.
Ehnes: As far as Bach goes, the Chaconne can stand alone, and I have programmed it alone. But it is part of a partita and it obviously belongs there. For the recording I didn’t want to split up movements of a baroque suite because I wanted a unified approach.
In Bach’s time violin technique had not yet progressed past a certain point, which means that are a number of challenging violin techniques that hadn’t been developed yet. But the point of Homage was to show off what these instruments could do given the most extreme technical challenges. So that turned me in the direction of romantic show pieces. These were mostly pieces I had wanted to record at some point anyway. So I put together a list of about thirty pieces that would work well, with the contrast of a more virtuosic and a more lyrical piece for each instrument.
Then I started thinking about which piece would sound particularly good on each instrument. I’m proud that when I got to the recording session and re-acquainted myself with the instruments in David Fulton’s collection I only changed one selection. The other pieces worked exactly the way I had expected them to.
So it was the instruments themselves that inspired you on this project?
Ehnes: When you have the best equipment you are able to do the most. Then when you consider the emotional aspect of the music itself, it becomes a matter of not only the pleasure of playing these great instruments, but also of providing beauty. These violins unquestionably sound millions of times better than others. Musicians talk about being able to play a room. These instruments can make the sound reach certain points in a hall. People sometimes confuse the size of a voice with its ability to project. It’s not that the voice is bigger, but it sounds closer. And with a great voice – or a great violin - the sound just blossoms.
Then there’s the historical aspect. When you play these old string instruments, you are creating art with art. It’s as if you had a Van Gogh painting that could also paint a Van Gogh painting. It’s a unique experience, and it always inspires me.
On November 26, 28 and 29 James Ehnes performs Prokofiev Concerto #2 with the Toronto Symphony under Stéphane Denève at 8:00 in Roy Thomson Hall. He gives a recital at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall on November 27 at 8.00, with Andrew Armstrong, piano.
Then there’s the issue of who’s playing.
Ehnes: There’s the famous story about a woman who comes back-stage after a Heifetz concert and says, “Oh, Mr. Heifetz, your violin makes the most amazing sound.” He holds up the case and says, “I hear nothing,” and walks away. Most of what you hear is in fact the player.
Why do you choose to play a Stradivarius?
Ehnes: There are things you can do on a Strad that you can’t do on other violins, especially with gradations of colour and subtle variations of tone. It has to do with the density, purity and focus of the sound. But you can sound absolutely terrible on a Strad. Every infelicity and mistake is magnified and shown off to the world.
Was Conrad Black actually involved the purchase of your instrument at one point?
Ehnes: Before David Fulton got involved, Conrad Black put a large amount of money down on this instrument to keep it from being sold out from under me. He tried to put a consortium of Canadian investors together to buy it. It didn’t work out, and obviously things have not gone terribly well for Mr. Black in recent years, but I will always be grateful for what a tremendous help he and his wife were to me.
You have a remarkably broad repertoire, from all periods. How did you develop such a large repertoire?
Ehnes: My career developed very gradually. I was never suddenly catapulted into playing tons and tons of concerts. Rather than wanting to do the Brahms Concerto or the Beethoven Concerto every time, I looked at each performance as an opportunity to learn something different and gain experience. So by the time I was twenty-five I had performed a lot of pieces in the repertoire at least a couple of times. It got to be a habit for me to mix up my repertoire, and I enjoyed doing that. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but if I play a piece once I might not remember it all that well if enough time goes by. But if I perform it twice then it never goes very far away. So, fortunately for the sake of my sanity, there are a lot of pieces in my repertoire that are never far away.
That certainly prevents you from being pigeon-holed.
Ehnes: That’s a good thing. But it’s interesting how in different places people see me in different ways because of what I have performed there. I did an interview once overseas where it took me a second to realize what was going on. They thought I was a baroque specialist because all they knew of me was my Bach recordings. Or I will get asked why I do so much twentieth century music, and I’ll realize I’m in a city where it happens that over the last five years I’ve played Shostokovich, Prokofiev, Bartók and some new commissions. But two hundred miles down the road maybe I was playing nothing but Mozart , Haydn and Beethoven.
But not only do you play a lot of very different works, you perform a lot of them in a single season - a different program practically every night, it seems.
Ehnes: There are so many great concertos for the violin – there are at least thirty that are absolutely first rate. If you do just five a year, it would be six years before you got around to some of them - and I would miss those too much. It would be terrible if I didn’t get to play the Prokofiev Second, or the Mozart Fourth, or the Brahms for six years. …. And then there are all the concertos that are pretty good and worth the occasional play.
But it does get tricky when I have the Brahms in one place, and then the next day I go somewhere else for a Bartók concerto, and then the next day somewhere else again for the Glazunov Concerto.
Living in Florida, do you have American citizenship?
Ehnes: I have dual. My parents are Americans. When they moved to Brandon, Manitoba in 1973, they never expected to stay. But it was a great place to live, so they’ve been there ever since.
Ehnes: I went to New York to study at Juilliard and lived there for eight years. I met a girl who was studying at the School of American Ballet - she is now my wife, Kate. Her first job was in Sarasota, and so I followed her down there. Kate ended up spending the bulk of her dancing career in Philadelphia. But we had this house in Florida that we liked. The west coast of Florida is really beautiful. It’s very calm, so it’s a great place for me to disappear for a couple of days in between concerts, especially in winter when I’m going from gloomy northern weather in one place to gloomy northern weather somewhere else. To have a couple of days at home in Florida and be able to pick oranges off the trees is a nice way to break up the seasons. I only perform in Florida only once or twice a year. But I only perform anywhere once or twice a year, so it doesn’t particularly matter where I live.
I understand you are serious about cars - do you have any special cars at home?
Ehnes: I’ve got a ’71 Corvette convertible that I’ve had for about 10 years. It was my first car. It’s older than I am.
That’s an unusual choice for a first car.
Ehnes: I love that car and I know every nut and bolt in it.
What colour is it?
Ehnes: It’s not a low profile car - it’s noticeable. I actually drove it up to Toronto once. I’ve got a ’79 black Ferrari 308 as well. I’ve done a lot of work on the Corvette.
You do the work yourself?
Ehnes: Yes. I’ve got burns and cuts to prove it. I know, I know…..But it was a good diversion for a few years to re-build that Corvette.
It is nice for me to find things to do that are less subjective than music. And I’ve always liked cars. Sports too, because in sports, basically, if you hit a ball over the wall it’s a home run - and that’s just how it is. And with re-building a car, basically it’s whether the car runs and whether the brakes work. But in music you might think you hit a home run – and someone else might think you struck out. The fact that that there are no right or wrong answers to anything is part of the beauty of music, but it can be frustrating. So I need elements in my life that are black and white.
And with music, even if you have done something great, there’s always the feeling it could be better.
Ehnes: Yes, you’re always trying to improve, that’s the thing. I finally realized I kept working on my Corvette because I was so used to the constant refinement of music. I had to tell myself to stop messing with my car. I realized I had in my mind an ideal from my violin training that wasn’t attainable from any machinery.
I’m thinking of Yehudi Menuhin, and how in his later years you often felt his frustration more than his joy during a performance.
Ehnes: Menuhin is an interesting case because he had such a hard time psychologically dealing with always trying to improve. I didn’t know him at all - I just met him once. But I’ve played on six instruments that had belonged to him. The present owner of each one says theirs was his favourite violin, and they have it in writing to prove it. When you read his correspondence and interviews, you see that he did say each of them was the greatest violin he had ever played. He just got so caught up in the process of achieving what he wanted.
There’s a need for picking your playing apart and analyzing how it works, but I think he went too far for his own good. It was as though somewhere along the line he deconstructed his own playing to a point where he never quite put it back together to the level that it had been. There has to be a balance between being self-critical and not destroying yourself over things you don’t like. In a certain sense, I’ve never played a performance that I’ve been completely happy with, you know. But it’s not as bad as all that because I can’t think of many performances I’ve played that I haven’t been happy with on some level . So I just try to find things I can be proud of about my playing.
With every concert I play I can’t shake the feeling that if anything goes wrong it will be a disaster and everyone will know. I know that that’s not going to happen. I also know that people don’t listen to see if every note is centered right in the middle of the pitch or every harmonic speaks just the way it should. But I always have the feeling that it has to be better. Luckily I don’t get torn up about it. At this point in my life I have a healthy attitude towards the fact that things aren’t going to be quite the way you want.
It sounds like you had a lot of support growing up, and not just from your parents.
Ehnes: There was a triumvirate of wonderful people looking after me and planning things very strategically. They were the biggest personal influences on me as well. There was my Dad, who was a trumpeter, my violin teacher Francis Chaplin and Donald Henry, who was my accompanist, coach, piano teacher, and sort of guru. So the three of them worked with me and we would go around to competitions or performances. It was great just having that support network.
Francis Chaplin sounds like an extraordinary man.
Ehnes: Yes, he was - and a wonderful guy. It’s hard to go to any top Canadian orchestra that doesn’t have a few of his students. He grew up in the Maritimes and was a big star at Juilliard. He had a popular CBC television show called Reflections. People out east knew him the way Americans knew Ed Sullivan.
In the 1960’s Francis and Canadian pianist Lorne Watson spearheaded a campaign to start up a great music school in Brandon, of all places. My Dad came out not long after that, in the early 70’s. It was a glorious period there. In Canada a lot of the most remarkable things are in the most unlikely spots. One of my favourite examples is that Thunder Bay has one of the greatest concert halls in the world, with some of the finest acoustics anywhere. And Brandon, Manitoba has one of the finest music schools.
Your mother was a dancer. Did you also study dance?
I was the middle kid. I was the one always trying to keep everybody happy and smoothing things out. So when I was 8 or 9, I was spending so much time with my Dad doing music that I thought it would be a nice thing for my Mom if I showed interest in what she was doing. So I told my Mom I’d like to take ballet. I hated it. But I’ve been surrounded by dance my entire life and have a lot of friends in ballet.
Have you worked with dancers much?
Ehnes: Yes, I did a couple of projects with the National Ballet, which was a great experience. The philosophy of the company, as far as I saw, was that the dance comes from the music - and they have great dancers and a very fine orchestra.
Did your involvement with Jeunesses Musicales have much impact on you?
Ehnes: Yes, Jeunesses Musicales had a major influence in my life. I feel very fortunate that they were there. When I was sixteen and seventeen, I did a couple of big tours in Quebec for them. To have the opportunity of playing night after night for audiences that respond so warmly was just incredible. French Canada just has the most wonderful musical culture. I later on did a tour with Jeunesse Musicales World Orchestra, so it’s been a continuing part of my life. They provided me with one of the best learning experiences a young musician could ever have.
You’re back here in November to perform with the Toronto Symphony. Has the TSO been important for you over the years?
Ehnes: I don’t think there’s an orchestra anywhere that I feel closer to. It’s a really nice group of people – both in the orchestra and the administration. So it’s always a pleasant experience, as well as being musically rewarding.
And Walter Homburger, who used to manage the orchestra, has remained important in your life.
Ehnes: Oh yes. Walter has been my world manager for about sixteen years. He oversees everything. Tonight we’re going to get together and go through my whole schedule and make plans. He pointed my career in the trajectory it has followed, so that I wasn’t suddenly playing more concerts than I could handle. He’s been amazing – he invested so much in me because he believed in me.
You are giving a recital in the Royal Conservatory’s new Koerner Hall during the same period.
Ehnes: Yes - I’m really look forward to playing in that hall.
Any plans to play the piano?
Ehnes: I don’t think so…
The Respighi Sonata you are playing isn’t programmed often.
Ehnes: No, and it’s a great work. I love Respighi’s lush romanticism. It fills the same spot in the violin repertoire as the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata – there’s nothing else like it, although the Rachmaninov Sonata is a lot more well known. They both have fiercely difficult piano parts. I am planning to record it with the pianist that’s playing with me for that concert, Andrew Armstrong.
What else are you recording?
Ehnes: (He pauses) I’m recording Paganini’s 24 Caprices. Why did I have to think about that - it has only been consuming every moment of my waking life.
You have already recorded them - why do them again?
Ehnes: That was my first CD, almost 15 years ago. I just got a bee in my bonnet about re-recording them. This is one of the things I enjoy so much about working with the British label Onyx , and why their projects turn out so well - they let people record things they want to do. You are going to do their best work when you are inspired by a project. But I’m not disowning my previous recording of the Caprices. It represents who I was then.
The importance of these pieces can’t possibly be overstated. They are so technically challenging that they are in a league of their own. Every single one of them is so difficult to play to the composer’s written instructions. So there are many things in the scores that are usually ignored because they are just too difficult to pull off with consistency – a bowing indication, a particular stretch, or a direction to play on certain strings to create a particular effect.
But I was inspired by the idea of showing that these pieces are more revelatory and beautiful than they are traditionally regarded. A lot of them are actually quite mysterious and introverted, but you never hear those ones because they’re not outwardly virtuosic. But even the others - the way they are thought of is not the way they really are.
So when you say how important they are, you don’t just mean for the violin?
Ehnes: I think the entire course of music could not have gone in the direction it went if it weren’t for Paganini. Paganini was a very serious composer. After hearing Paganini play Liszt spent two years in a room just practicing. And it can’t be just a coincidence that Chopin wrote exactly 24 Etudes. The number of composers that wrote pieces inspired by Paganini, or using Paganini’s themes - Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Lutoslawski, the list goes on and on and on.
Then why is he performed so rarely?
Ehnes: There are certain pieces where there’s just too much to lose. A lot can go wrong in a Paganini performance. If a violinist misses a couple of notes in a live concert, people will compare that to a recording and say that they’re slipping. Maybe a couple of harmonics don’t sound, and there’s someone out in the audience with a cameraphone and soon it’s on YouTube and everyone is saying, “He’s not what he used to be.” It is stupid, but it is something we think about.
You made so many discs with CBC Records – how do you feel about the fact that they are no longer producing new recordings?
Ehnes: How can they do that? When you take a look through the CBC catalogue you see gifts to the world. Randy Bernard had so much vision, and he did so many exciting things. I’m quite sure the recording I did with Bramwell Tovey in Vancouver was the last large-scale classical recording that CBC Records made. It won a Grammy. So they won their first Grammy ever with their last recording.
What do you think about what’s going on now at CBC radio?
Ehnes: I’m not happy about what has happened there either. The hardest thing for me is to see how so many friends who have devoted their lives to the CBC have had that taken away from them. There are still some great people at the CBC working hard to continue classical music coverage. And what they’re doing with the website and internet radio is great. Yet people I know there have been personally vilified for programming choices that are not their own.
To me the most important thing for the CBC is to get classical music back on the radio when kids are out of school. So many people across the country were introduced to classical musical by hearing it on the radio before they went to school and when they got back home. And that’s gone now. You can’t expect kids who don’t know the art form to search it out unless it’s easily available.
And what about people in the vast expanses of Canada where there is no live classical music and certainly no alternative classical music station like Classical 96? They shouldn’t get classical music? What is that going to do for future generations – particularly in a country that is famous throughout the world for having produced so many great classical musicians. It seems wrong.
For a list of Ehnes’ recordings, go to his web site:
For a list of favorite recordings that he put together for the CBC program, This Is My Music, go to the CBC Radio 2 website: