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Interview: James Ehnes

James Ehnes isn't just one of the most sought after violinists in the world, but just as in demand for his skills as a violist. We spoke to him about his recent recording of the Walton Viola Concerto, keeping repertoire fresh and the complex relationship between a soloist and an orchestra.

Listen to his recordings on Primephonic. 

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You recently recorded the Walton Walton Viola Concerto – there's a story about that Lionel Tertis, who it was written for, said it was unplayable when he first saw the manuscript. Is it that difficult to play?

I think it’s written very well. There are parts of it that are challenging like in any concerto, and it’s part of the fun – you want a concerto to have a certain virtuosic element. It's also important to not confuse the unfamiliar and inconvenient with impossible. It's because of pieces like the Walton that violists nowadays are kind of expected to do more things than they would have at that time. It certainly has more technical elements than a piece like Harold in Italy. I think that compared to Violin Concerto where the technical demands are really extreme, the Viola Concerto is written in more of a practical way. The Viola Concerto seems so natural, you can imagine that it was the type of piece that came to him as a single inspiration, which I’m sure was not the case.

Do you feel like the Walton Violin Concerto is played enough, compared to pieces like the Brahms or Beethoven?

Probably not. In general, a lot of great 20th century British music is still finding its way in other parts of the world. I played the Elgar Concerto in Hannover 6 years ago and it was the first performance of Elgar Concerto in Hannover! How’s that even possible? And I think the Britten Violin Concerto was another piece that took a long time to get a foothold, and now over the last 10 years it’s become a major part of the repertoire – a lot of people play it, it’s programmed quite a bit and that’s great. I hope that the Walton in time will become appreciated in that way. I don’t think it’s there yet, but there is no reason for it.

Coming back to the Viola, how is it for you to switch between the two instruments? Do you have to spend a lot of time acclimatising to the feeling of the instrument?

It depends how much viola playing I’m doing at the time. I usually do a couple of projects a year, so there might be a period of a few months where I play viola a lot and it feels natural. Certainly my motivation to play the viola has always been the music that you can play on it, and because a big part of my musical personality is that I need variety. The viola repertoire is not as big as the violin, but certainly supplements the music that I can play on violin. I didn’t play viola until I was twenty, and when I first started it was easier for me to switch from violin to viola than back from viola to violin, but now it doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t really think of the instruments being so specifically different.

How do you keep repertoire fresh, when you've played it so many times?

True, that’s a real legitimate danger. I like to rotate a lot of repertoire, mainly so I don’t get burned out with the same pieces over and over. One of the things that I like most about playing with Ed [Gardner], is that there is always curiosity and a desire to get a little bit closer to the music. When I am at the point of being ready to perform a piece, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want the piece to say as a totality. The beauty of live performances is how you get from A to B, and how all those little things can cumulatively become something different. If I would play the Brahms Concerto in ten different places, I’d think that probably the overall effect of the interpretation would be quite similar because that’s how I feel about Brahms, but I bet they would all come in slightly different tempos and details. There are different ways of telling the same story, and working with the conductors I am the closest with and exploring those journeys with someone who you share similar instincts with is the fun part.

Do you ever get a chance to listen to your colleagues performing?

At festivals you get a chance to spend some time with other violinists and hear the way they approach things. Something that I've never understood is when people complain about certain pieces being overexposed. It’s one of those weird things where somehow if you want to be a part of classical music intelligentsia, you have to talk about how the performers are not as individual as they used to be. If you think that, you're clearly not listening closely enough. On the violin it’s impossible for two violinists to sound the same. There are certain trends in interpretation that kind of get annoying sometimes, and occasionally you can date an interpretation by certain affectations, but the musicians that I’m most attracted to are so totally convinced about what they do that that I become convinced too. 

And would you ever incorporate these things into your own interpretation – if you are convinced?

It gets into a complicated territory there, because things that make violinists unique are not necessarily the musical ideas, but their way of actually playing the music. And I don’t think that you can ever effectively integrate someone else’s personal style into your own. A musical idea – sure, and that's really a big part of being a responsible musician and being open minded to other ideas and engaging for yourself with the effectiveness of them. But as far as playing as another player, that is always a very dangerous thing – you will end up sounding like a watered down version of someone else.

In terms of orchestras, you've played with most of the greats by now. How did they deliver on your expectations?

My experience is that the orchestras that are supposed to be great, are great. But there are sometimes orchestras that you don’t know so much about which are just wonderful, and it's rewarding in a slightly less expected way. Definitely one of the best parts about developing one’s career is that nowadays I get to play with only really good orchestras. Ed [Gardner] and I were talking about this the other day: after you’ve been doing this long enough, you realise that you can develop this really close, intense relationship with an orchestra and maybe the same conductor. Things like that are really special and they don’t always last forever: maybe there's administrational change and you go from being one of those inner circle core people to being a bit more occasional, and you have to work your way back in. And then there are few orchestras that are a part of your life almost continually, and that for me it’s certainly the Canadian orchestras – the Montreal Orchestra, Toronto, Vancouver, orchestras that have been there through my whole career. I have long continual relationship with Philharmonia Orchestra in the UK – I've been playing with them almost every year since I started coming to England. Right now, with Ed [Gardner] being the Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, I’ve made 3 recordings with them, and we’ve got other projects coming up. I’m just loving what’s happening there and feel so close to this orchestra – I hope that continues forever, but who knows. 

What about the difference between a live performance and a recording? Do you prepare for it differently?

I don’t think that I prepare differently. The recording process can be really educational, and one of my greatest friends, a producer that I work with a lot has an expression, “You don’t really know a piece until you recorded it.” But I think it can be dangerous to start looking at it like a math problem or some sort of a puzzle that needs to be solved. There are things you can do in a recording that you can do sonically, bring out details and textures that would get lost in a hall that are worth hearing, so I do love the process. 

There are not so many contemporary composers featured in your discography – is that a conscious choice?

What really has happened with my recordings in general it’s just been the opportunities that present themselves at a time. Actually my next release is of three pieces that were written for me and all premiered in the last three years, including a Violin Concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis, and a very different Violin Concerto by James Newton Howard – who is mainly known for his film music. The third piece is for violin and piano, and was written as sort of a birthday present for my 40th birthday from Bramwell Tovey. The story behind the Howard concerto is interesting – years ago, my wife and I were at a movie and she joked, “This music’s amazing, this guy should write you a violin concerto”. And ten years later I got a call from an orchestra saying “We want to commission a Violin Concerto for this big anniversary for our conductor, from a composer whose on our board – his name is James Newton Howard” I couldn’t believe it, and I signed up for it immediately! So that concerto was a live recording in Detroit with Cristian Măcelaru. So this CD just came out of will, and I think the best recordings are often the ones where the musicians want to make it happen.