Canadian violinist James Ehnes first performed with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993 and has returned many times since as a soloist and chamber musician. He joins Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra for Season Opening concerts on September 14, 15 and 16, performing the U.S. premiere of Anders Hillborg's Violin Concerto No. 2. Then, he returns in January 2018 to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto during the Orchestra's Tchaikovsky Marathon. We asked him to tell us a little more about himself, what to listen for in these performances and his longstanding relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Do you come from a musical family?
My father was, for many years, the trumpet professor at Brandon University (in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, where I grew up), and my mother was a ballet dancer and had a ballet school, so I grew up around music, musicians and artists in general.
What or who influences you most as a musician?
Difficult question! I guess I’d have to say the music itself. I spend a lot of time with scores, trying to figure out how to “decode” that mysterious written language and trying to get into the head of the composer.
What are some of your favorite and most unusual venues in which you have performed?
A few favorites are Carnegie Hall in New York, the Musikverein in Vienna, and Wigmore Hall in London—from big, to medium, to small. But there are a lot of great places, for lots of reasons! I have definitely played in some unusual places, mainly in Canada—from hockey rinks to a fantastic igloo church in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the soloist, what or who do you love to listen to?
I want to hear performances that are honest and 100% committed, and where I feel that the performer really believes in what they are doing.
Do you have any favorite memories or standout performances among your previous Minnesota Orchestra concerts?
All of my memories with the Minnesota Orchestra are happy ones! I suppose I would have to pick my performances of the Brahms concerto in 2012, because that was the first time I had worked with Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra together, and it was exciting to see the obvious chemistry that as we all know has blossomed into one of the great partnerships in the musical world.
In the upcoming season, you will perform with the Minnesota Orchestra several times. What is exciting to you about this partnership?
I love the spirit of this orchestra. There is always a sense of 100% commitment and an openness to explore all options to make the music speak as powerfully as possible.
What should audiences listen for in the Hillborg Violin Concerto No. 2 this week?
There are many striking features in the Hillborg Concerto, but I would particularly point out the use of color—the opening has an absolutely amazing atmosphere, and really draws in the listener. There is also very exciting virtuosity as the piece develops!
What should audiences listen for in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which you perform when you return to Minneapolis in January 2018?
This piece really doesn’t need much of an introduction—it is one of the truly perfect pieces, and audiences should just sit back and enjoy! I can’t think of any concerto that has a more wonderful mix of lyricism and virtuosity.
If you could learn to play a different instrument, which would you choose?
I play piano and used to play a lot, but I wish I was better than I am and wish I had more time to learn all of the piano’s amazing repertoire.
What fun facts should we know about you?
I am the world’s No. 1 Boston Red Sox fan (but I also like the Twins, unless the Red Sox meet them in the playoffs). And I’ve known concertmaster Erin Keefe for 20 years! She is one of my great friends, and I even like to take a little bit of credit for getting her together with Osmo Vänskä.
What is your favorite must-have food when visiting Minnesota?
I hope to discover one on this trip! I’ve been hearing great things about the Twin Cities’ food scene.
Watch James Ehnes perform Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee for violin and piano, with pianist Andrew Armstrong.
James Ehnes performs Hillborg's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Minnesota Orchestra on September 14, 15 and 16. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
He returns to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto on January 13 and 14, 2018. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.