Violinist James Ehnes on 3 Powerful & Personal Commissions

By Laurence Vittes

Aaron Jay Kernis/James Newton Howard/Bramwell Tovey James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot, cond.; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cristian Macelaru, cond. (Onyx)

Aaron Jay Kernis/James Newton Howard/Bramwell Tovey
James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot, cond.; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cristian Macelaru, cond.

James Ehnes is one of the most sublime virtuosos operating nowadays. He relates authentically to the music he plays, and has a great knowledge of and respect for the integrity of the musical line. He tours widely and records frequently, both as a soloist and a chamber-music player.

He shares a birthday with his good friend and fellow violinist Renaud Capuçon: January 27, 1976. Beyond the birthday, both violinists now also boast a CD of works written for them. Capuçon’s release two years ago featured works by Wolfgang Rihm, Pascal Dusapin, and Bruno Mantovani. Ehnes’ new recording on Onyx features three world-premiere recordings of music written for him by James Newton Howard, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Bramwell Tovey.

Ehnes’ partners on this enterprise are pianist Andrew Armstrong, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.

I caught up with Ehnes in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the symphony, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. According to the Dallas News, Ehnes supplied “great delicacy where called for, great drama elsewhere, effortlessly tossing off the most fearsome technical challenges.”

I’ve just listened to your new recording. Three very powerful works. What a fabulous project this has turned out to be.

I’m glad you feel that way. It’s a very moving milestone of my career. I’ve achieved something where these wonderful composers want to write music for me, and it’s an honor to be able to bring their music into the repertoire. I hope and absolutely expect that they will all gain a permanent foothold in the violin repertoire. And all three were particularly exciting for different reasons.


Let’s start with the shortest of the three, Bramwell Tovey’s Stream of Limelight.

Bramwell is one of my oldest musical friends—he was a great mentor to me and a great champion of my early career. His first job as music director in North America was with the Winnipeg Symphony and I first played with them when I was 13. A lot of my first performances of iconic repertoire were with him. We played together, toured together, recorded together, and I’d heard a lot of his music—but never played any of it.

So, before embarking on a big tour of Canada for my 40th birthday, when I went to all the provinces and territories, I wanted to commission a new piece by a Canadian composer. I approached Bramwell and he basically wrote Stream of Limelight for me as my 40th birthday present. Then Andy Armstrong and I had the chance to play it in 26 or 27 recitals all across the country. That was a very special thing.

Aaron Jay Kernis had already written Two Movements (with Bells) for you.

I got to know Aaron’s music a little bit in the early 2000s. Then I was approached in December 2006 by the BBC Proms, who had found a little extra money in their budget, and asked if I’d be interested in commissioning a piece for my performance the coming summer. I said sure, but it was pretty short notice. I loved Aaron Kernis’ music and though I didn’t know him at all, I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t at least try. I was sure he’d say no but maybe it would start a conversation for later.

“It’s ferociously hard. I don’t think Aaron necessarily meant it to be that way, but I take it as a great compliment, that he wrote all those notes for me.”

And he said yes?

To my great surprise and pleasure he said yes. He’s actually already been kicking around an idea for a violin and piano piece that needed to be born, so to speak. So he wrote this wonderful piece for violin and piano for me called Two Movements (with Bells) that I recorded with [pianist] Andrew Russo. It started a great friendship with Aaron, and for years we thought it would be great to see if we could somehow put a concerto commission together. It took about ten years and we finally did it. The Seattle Symphony was one of the co-commissioners and did the US premiere, so the recording is from those US premiere performances in Seattle.


It sounds very difficult at times.

In many ways the Kernis is the most technically difficult piece I’ve ever played. It’s ferociously hard. I don’t think Aaron necessarily meant it to be that way, but I take it as a great compliment, that he wrote all of those notes for me. And the virtuosity is an integral part of the music. When I first got the score I was slogging through it, thinking about all the notes, did they really all need to be there? As I got to know the piece better I realized they absolutely did. There isn’t a wasted effort at all. The piece manifests its ease incredibly, creatively, and unlike anything else. Its harmonies are chromatic and dense but it’s actually a very beautiful, colorful piece from a different world.

How did the James Newton Howard commission happen?

It had the most unusual genesis of all. My wife and I had seen a cool new movie called Signs with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. The music under the opening credits was so riveting and exciting that my wife turned to me and whispered, “This music is amazing. This guy should write you a violin concerto.” We thought, right, like how’s that going to happen? Years later the artistic planner of the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, California, asked if I wanted to get involved with a new project for the 25th anniversary of music director Carl St. Clair. They wanted to commission a major new violin concerto. When they added that they had a board member, who was also a composer, and maybe he could write the concerto, I was thinking, “Oh no . . .” But when she told me the board member was James Newton Howard, I jumped at the opportunity.

How do you describe his style?


His concerto is music that only he could have written. It has moments that remind me a little of this or that, but could only be by him. The second movement is for me the real center of the piece, both geographically and emotionally as well. Very moving and very beautiful. And the proportions and the pacing are so right—he never lingers on an idea if it’s not warranted and never short changes one either, and so the piece progresses in an entirely natural way.

What have you scheduled for next season?

A big focus of next season will be Beethoven. I’m going to be completing my recorded Beethoven cycle of the sonatas with Andrew Armstrong. We’ve recorded three so far; and recording the remaining seven alone will make it a big Beethoven year. My quartet will also be doing some cycles as part of the celebrations. A lot of Beethoven. There’s nothing better than that. 

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This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.