He's played in 30 countries on five continents, but performing with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will always hold a special place in James Ehnes's heart.
"It's been really meaningful to me to have this close and continuous relationship with the WSO," says the world-renowned violinist, who will be taking the stage with the orchestra on Oct. 4 and 5 to perform Khachaturian's exuberant Violin Concerto on a bill that also includes Brahms' Symphony No. 1.
"It's one of those great pieces that isn't played a lot -- but isn't unknown, either," Ehnes says. "It's extremely virtuosic. It's a piece I've known for a very long time. Because it's not as well known as Beethoven or Brahms, it's great fun to play."
The seasoned performer has learned better than to project his own feelings about a piece onto an audience -- "I feel very strongly about that, that people will take what they will" -- but he says this Khachaturian concerto is a stunner.
"I think it's a piece that can have a great amount of visceral excitement. Khachaturian was an emotional Armenian guy who wore his heart on his sleeve; this piece has that character."
It's also a nostalgic piece for the Brandon-born musician, who first learned it when he was 13 or 14 -- which is how old Ehnes was when he made his major solo debut with Orchestre symphonique de Montr©al. A high-achieving Lisa Simpson-type to be sure, Ehnes picked up the violin at the tender age of four; by nine, he was the proteg© of noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin. He studied at the prestigious Meadowmount School of Music -- a seven-week camp in upstate New York famed for its intensive, five-hour-a-day practice schedule -- and has won a long list of awards.
Now, at just 37, he's a bona fide rock star of the classical world, with seven Junos and a Grammy under his belt. While he's an in-demand soloist with a packed touring schedule, Ehnes is at the point in his career where he can be more selective about the pieces he performs. His repertoire is vast, but he's always looking for new challenges.
"The violin repertoire is so great. You think you have a handle on it and what it is and you think you can get your arms around it -- but you never can because it's so big," he says, adding that he tries to learn one or two new concertos a year.
"As you get more established it gets harder to do that. The draw becomes you and not necessarily the piece. If an orchestra hires you on the strength of your reputation and repertoire, you're not going to counteract that with something they haven't heard."
Happily, recording has offered Ehnes the opportunity to delve into works by underperformed and underappreciated composers. His B©la Bart�k series, for example, has been one such labour of love. The final volume in the Works for Piano & Violin trilogy will be out this spring.
Ehnes says he feels a certain responsibility when it comes to the Hungarian composer's music.
"It receives terrible performances, which I think hinders the appreciation of it," he says. "Having the chance to record this music in ideal circumstances, it's been a real honour. I'm hoping the recordings will earn him new fans. He's one of the most famous composers we have whose music we don't know."
Ehnes has an extensive discography, one that he contributes to with stunning regularity. In September, he released James Ehnes Plays Prokofiev: Complete Works for Violin, a two-disc set that has already earned Ehnes another pile of rave reviews highlighting his athleticism. As CBC Music pointed out, "it proves, if proof were necessary at this stage in his career, that Ehnes is truly the Wayne Gretzky of the violin."
"I love the idea of recording," Ehnes says. "They're a pain to create, but they've always been important to me."
That makes sense; for a kid living in, say, Brandon, recordings provide a vital entry point into classical music. Still, little compares to hearing those strings sing live -- especially when those strings are attached to a 1715 Stradivarius formerly owned by and named for Martin Pierre Marsick, a Belgian violinist and teacher. The violin is worth millions, but for Ehnes, the music he makes with it is worth far more.
"It's been a favourite for a long time. I first saw it in 1996 and I've been playing on it very regularly ever since. I've known it for a long time and I love it very much.
"There are great violins out there, but Strads play in a very particular type of way and allow you to do very particular kinds of things. When you develop that comfort level, it takes out a lot of the practice because you know how it's going to react."