'Unmatchable' James Ehnes Premieres A.J. Kernis’s Killer New Violin Concerto at Seattle Symphony

March 17, 2017

...with James Ehnes as the soloist, the clichés often signaled by “virtuosity” — mere dazzle, effects without causes — have no bearing. It’s clear that Kernis tailored the piece to display this unmatchable violinist’s musical intelligence, taste, and beautiful sound production above all incredible technical feats he calls for (of which this piece is essentially a violinist’s compendium). Whether Ehnes was attacking a fearsome passage of double-stop chords with his signature elegance or deftly sprinkling a torrent of precisely placed pizzicati, it was like watching a veteran climber scaling a particularly brutal mountain face sans ropes. But for all the thrills and escapades, the overall impression he left of the concerto — which Kernis has dedicated to Ehnes — was of a rich, many-colored, joyful composition that has something compelling to say, and that resonates afterward.


Bernstein Serenade with the Gewandhausorchester and Alexander Shelley

March 4, 2017

“The pinnacle of the evening came before the interval … You couldn’t wish for a better soloist for this delicate treasure of a piece. [Ehnes’] tone is soft yet silvery, sparkling and lively. He excels in this masterpiece by letting love as an idea, a vision, a poetic ideal, be illuminated without being overly sentimental – and with masterful confidence, he makes the substantial technical challenges of this work seem completely incidental. The precision of his playing; its clarity, its delicacy, its introspectiveness, its soul, its intimacy, its intelligence – all of this [is carried across] to the Gewandhausorchester.” (Leipziger Volkszeitung, March 2017)


Beethoven Violin Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner

November 28, 2016 | News

"Well, the great Ludwig had reckoned without James Ehnes, a violinist in a class of his own. The Canadian musician’s polite, unassuming manner belies his brilliant artistry. His piercing clarity and sweet lyricism made this a Beethoven Violin Concerto to remember." (The Times, November 2016)


Strauss Violin Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis

August 12, 2016 | News

"That always-welcome soloist, James Ehnes?, returned to resuscitate Strauss' brilliant Violin Concerto in D minor, a product of the composer's teenage years but loaded with enough virtuosity to keep Ehnes busy and a rich-if-lumpy orchestration to back his efforts. The surrounding framework of Strauss' concerto may be leaden in format but Ehnes dazzled through his warm passion as the work's focal point: razor-keen for the Allegro, maintaining a glowing warmth in his non-stop slow movement, then switching to snappy brilliance for the finale. Throughout this work – as with pretty well everything we have heard from him in live performance – Ehnes demonstrated unflappable authority, surging past Strauss' obstacles as though they didn't exist. In short, an exhilarating experience to be relished."(The Age, 12 August 2016)


Ehnes String Quartet: Complete Beethoven String Quartets in Seoul, Korea

July 1, 2016 | News

The Ehnes Quartet began performance of the historic Complete String Quartets by Beethoven on June 25, 2016.

The Ehnes Quartet, comprised of James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Richard Yongjae O’Neill (viola) and Robert DeMaine (cello), began their first performance by playing a piece from beginning, middle and end section of Beethoven String Quartet Nos. 1, 11, 13, etc. at the iBK Chamber Hall of Seoul Arts Center. It was a masterful performance of incredible collaboration.

In the beginning, which was the first movement of Beethoven String Quartet No. 1, the first impression of Ehnes Quartet was light and controlled. The two violins seemed as one. The violin tones of the Ehnes Quartet enraptured the listeners. In the slow second movement, the instruments continued as if privately conversing in whispers to one another. At times it felt as if the instruments were sighing in sorrow. The third movement passed by fluidly and the following fourth movement was exquisite. Each part was clearly different and control of the tempo was also masterful.

Listening to their performance first hand, it leads to the realization that Beethoven had created music that was independent from the influences of Haydn and Mozart even from String Quartet No. 1. The middle section of the String Quartet No. 11 ‘Serioso’ first movement began with a fast tempo. The overall performance of the four instruments seemed to play as one instrument and the tension kept the listener’s gasping for breath. In the second movement, the low tones of the cello resonated. After the third movement, which suggested a struggle, the fourth movement seemed to suggest the dance of a delicate soul.

The finale, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13, was grandiose yet mysterious. When the Quartet performed the fifth movement ‘Cavatina’, it was chilling. Reminding the listeners that cavatina means ‘short song’, the modern four string instruments played metaphysical music. In the title co-written by Richard Yongjae O’Neill ‘My and Your Beethoven’, Richard Yongjae O’Neill’s teacher, Irwin Isenberg referred to ‘cavatina’ as “Beethoven’s tears itself”. The performance brought to mind the old man in the book who was moved to tears at hearing this piece. With a magnificence beyond words, the performance exalted listeners.

It was a fine performance where the three elements of performers, program, and music hall were in harmony. It felt as if listeners were experiencing Beethoven’s life. The concentration of the performers and audience continued throughout the entire performance.

The performance of Beethoven’s Complete String Quartet continues today (2pm, 8pm), on July 1 (8pm) and July 3 (2pm, 8pm).

Taehyung Ryu, Music Columnist