Flawless Musicality

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Meet James Ehnes, one of the most revered violinists of his generation

What are you looking forward to most about returning to Melbourne?

I’m looking forward to everything! Melbourne was the first place I went to in Australia and I’m just in love with your city! Of course, I also love the Orchestra and I’ve done a lot of programs with MSO, so I’ve gotten really close with people in the Orchestra too.

But Melbourne is special for me and my wife: we’re going to be here over my wife’s birthday and we’re bringing our children this time too.

Every time I’m here, I love it and I look forward to the next visit. It’s really a great joy for me to be here.

Are you excited to be performing Strauss Violin Concerto?

I love working with Sir Andrew Davis – he is a passionate advocate of Strauss’ music and the Strauss Violin Concerto, well it’s a piece that doesn’t’ come around that often so it’s a real luxury to get to perform that with someone who feels so passionately about the music.

Speaking of Sir Andrew – you have known him for some time now, how did you first meet?

We met when he was at Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The man who had bought Sir Andrew to Toronto was Walter Homburger, who had also taken me under his wing, managed me and introduced me to some of the most important musical figures of my life.

Sir Andrew and I played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and it was a real joy. It was the first of many, many performances together: he bought me to the BBC Proms for my first UK performance and a lot of the most special musical moments in my career have been with him.

What do you love most about your instrument?

It’s a Stradivarius, made in 1715. I’ve known it for a long long time – I first saw it almost 20 years ago and I’ve been playing regularly on it for nearly 17 of those. It’s like a family member! I think the best thing about it is that it is very adaptable: I can play all sorts of different styles and repertoire and find what I think is the appropriate style and sound on it. It has such variety, although that isn’t to say it’s easy to play!

What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

When I speak to people who are interested in pursuing a career in music, I always try to gauge what their motivation is and if they really want to do it. Music is such a fun, social activity particularly when you’re young, that sometimes I think young musicians don’t pay attention to all the work that it can take to make it a career. If you have some hesitations then think very seriously about whether you’re willing to put in the hours, but if you are willing to work hard then it can be the most rewarding job in the world, you don’t think of it as work.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I pretty much always wanted to be a violinist. When I was very little I remember asking my dad if it might be possible to play the violin in the winter and be a professional baseball player in the summer – he told me he didn’t think so! My father was a musician so I was always surrounded by them and that was a huge influence on me – it seemed only natural for me to follow that path.

Do you have a little-known skill?

I know quite a bit about piano maintenance and piano technician stuff – a friend of mine is a really excellent piano technician and he got me interested in it. I can take apart a piano and regulate a piano and all that stuff.

What do you like to do when you visit Melbourne?

I’m really looking forward to going to Movida – I’m going to take my wife on her birthday. I love, love, love the Botanical Gardens, it’s my favourite place in Melbourne, so I’m looking forward to spending some time there.

What is on your to do list for the rest of the year?

There are some big musical projects: I turned 40 this year and I think I got ambitious! I’m doing 27 recitals during my Canadian tour [which runs throughout 2016]. We’re going to every province in every territory, which is pretty cool.

My quartet is doing a cycle of Beethoven quartets in Seoul next month too which I’m looking forward to, and I’m recording the Beethoven Concerto on Onyx in October – a piece I’ve played my whole life but never recorded.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

It was from my father when I was young and it has that kind of parental logic that’s really wise but also really irritating because it’s so wise.

He said ‘Do you want to play the violin?’
Me: ‘Yes Dad, I want to.’
‘Do you want to be good? Well then you have to practice.’

It’s so ironclad you can’t fault it, but I also think you can apply it to so many facets of life: if you want to be good or successful at something, you have to work. Certainly as I have my own children now, it is advice I’m thinking about a lot!

See James Ehnes perform with the MSO during two programs this August

Ehnes will perform as director and soloist in Elgar, Bach Puccini and Dvořák from 4 and 6 August at Melbourne Recital Centre and 5 August at Costa Hall, Geelong.

Ehnes will return to the stage on 11, 12 and 13 August to perform Richard Strauss’ Violin Concerto with the Orchestra during Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony at Hamer Hall.