Prodigal prodigy returns Violinist James Ehnes has been performing with the WSO since he was knee-high to a Stradivarius
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There would be few, if any, more appropriate guest soloists to launch the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season than James Ehnes.
With the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
• Centennial Concert Hall
• Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
• Tickets: $39-94; livestream tickets: $10, both at wso.ca
When the 45-year-old violinist takes the stage Saturday at the Centennial Concert Hall, it will be the latest of seemingly countless collaborations with the orchestra, going back to when he was a schoolboy prodigy from Brandon.
“It’s funny how ages work. I saw the WSO as a child as a long-standing, firmly established organization and now that I’m older it’s — wait a second, I’ve been involved with the WSO for almost half of its existence. How is that possible?” Ehnes says with a chuckle. “I’d love to think I have some small role in an orchestra that has meant a great deal to me.”
Ehnes, who will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 with the WSO and music director Daniel Raiskin Saturday night, became a regular guest soloist at symphony concerts not long after he met Bramwell Tovey in 1989, right around the time Tovey began a memorable 12-year tenure as the symphony’s music director.
Tovey, who died of cancer July 12 at age 69, will no doubt be in Ehnes’s thoughts, not to mention the thoughts of those in the audience who were drawn to the WSO while the charismatic Englishman held the baton at the concert hall.
“I think for me, the orchestra will always be linked with him,” Ehnes says from his home in Florida. “He was just such a huge part of Manitoba life during the last period of time I actually lived in Manitoba, so I always think of him in Winnipeg, and a certain force of nature he was in that community, and all the lasting contributions he made to Winnipeg artistic life.
“He managed to be both larger than life and completely down to earth. He was a really special man. Everybody loved him. I loved him. Quite apart from being such a great musician, he was a great guy and is sorely missed.”
That first meeting between Tovey and Ehnes has become a piece of Manitoba musical lore that rivals the Guess Who legends Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings or Neil Young’s formative years in Winnipeg.
As the story goes, Tovey was urged by orchestra members to hear the Brandon youngster. Ehnes arrived at Tovey’s office one day with his father Alan, a music professor at Brandon University, and the 12-year-old knocked Tovey’s socks off with brilliant solos.
It wasn’t long before Tovey would conduct Ehnes and the WSO, the first of many collaborations between the two over the years, one of which was the 2006 recording Barber/Korngold/Walton Violin Concertos, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which won a Grammy Award.
“I played some student concerts before Bramwell’s time there, but it was Bramwell that really brought me to work with the orchestra proper for the first time,” Ehnes remembers. “He took me places as a young violinist — I did my U.K. debut with him and played with him at orchestras in the United States.
“He felt very strongly about promoting young talent and I’m very fortunate that he believed in me.”
“(Bramwell) felt very strongly about promoting young talent and I’m very fortunate that he believed in me.”– James Ehnes
Ehnes performed a Tovey composition, Stream of Limelight, when he embarked on a 40th birthday tour across Canada in 2017 with pianist Andrew Armstrong.
“It’s wonderful to have this piece, like a piece of him that he’s left behind,” the violinist says. “He was in the process of writing a violin concerto for me and unfortunately that was never finished.”
In addition to being part of Tovey’s music world, Ehnes has since become part of the Star Wars universe, performing Natalie Holt’s compositions in the Disney+ series Kenobi that came out earlier this year.
“The Kenobi one was right out of nowhere,” he says. “(Holt) needed to be very mysterious about it, and when things are shrouded in that much secrecy in the movie and TV world, it’s usually high-profile. I was able to put two and two together and I thought, ‘This is the Obi-Wan Kenobi show.’”
Ehnes says the first film he saw in a theatre was The Empire Strikes Back, and being a small part of Kenobi brought him back to his childhood.
“My son is as into Star Wars as an eight-year-old as I was as an eight-year-old, with all the new stuff coming out. So as a family we’ve been having a lot of fun with it too,” he says.
Saturday night’s concert is part of a hectic 2022 schedule for Ehnes, one that includes fall and winter performances in the U.S. Japan, South Korea, Singapore and a 12-show tour of Australia that includes four dates at the Sydney Opera House, one of the world’s most famous landmarks.
He blames the COVID-19 pandemic for his hectic 2022 schedule, but he says it beats not performing at all.
“Last year, I really overbooked the year, thinking that 15 to 20 per cent might fall out, and nothing really did,” he says. “Everything is different than it used to be — I think that applies to every walk of life — but the schedule is busy, and I love to do it.”
Prior to all that, though, is the Beethoven concerto in front of an audience that has seen him grow from a prodigy into one of the classical music world’s most sought-after soloists.
“There’s a lot of history there and it’s always a real pleasure, but it’s been a little while, so I’m looking forward to making music with them and seeing my friends and connecting with the audience. It’s going to be a special time for me,” he says.
“To work with maestro Raiskin will be really fun. I’ve never played with him before, so no doubt we will find something unique to the way we’re feeling about the music at that time and place.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.