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A new era begins for Seattle chamber music

The Seattle Chamber Music Society's new director, James Ehnes, may seem young, but he's also talented, knowledgeable, determined, and diplomatic.

Seattle Chamber Music Society's Artistic Director, James Ehnes.

Seattle Chamber Music Society's Artistic Director, James Ehnes. Benjamin Ealovega

The 2011-12 season is shaping up to be a landmark year of changes within Seattle’s classical music scene.

Much of the attention has focused on Ludovic Morlot’s arrival as new music director of the Seattle Symphony, but in February James Ehnes takes the reins of the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS), an organization that attracts some of the region’s most passionately committed music fans.

Their Winter Festival, running from February 2 through 5 at Nordstrom Recital Hall in Benaroya Hall, launches Ehnes’s inaugural season as artistic director. The extent to which he’ll alter the tone and overall character of SCMS will only really start to be felt this summer, when the Society’s traditionally more elaborate festival — back-to-back concerts spread over an entire month — takes place. Still, the compact Winter Festival is the opening segment of the first season to have been entirely planned by him. It suggests some hints of what we might expect in the Ehnes era.

In fact, Ehnes (his name rhymes with “tennis”) hardly represents an unfamiliar presence to SMCS aficionados. An internationally acclaimed violinist who originally hails from Brandon in Canada’s prairie province of Manitoba, he’s a long-standing member of the constantly fluctuating roster of SMCS musicians. Together they seasonally migrate to the Emerald City to bliss out to the pleasures of making chamber music with old and new colleagues for dependably grateful audiences.

“SCMS now belongs to the mix of top destination music events,” says Ehnes, referring to the chamber music circuit that includes such prestigious festivals as those held in Marlboro, Vermont and Santa Fe. “It’s become an event of strategic importance for young players, too — a feather in their cap.”

Just turned 36, Ehnes was himself still in his teens when he began appearing at the festival in the mid-1990s at the invitation of Toby Saks, who founded SCMS in 1981 and helmed the organization through its 30th season last summer.

“Even when he was a teenager,” recalls Saks, “his playing wasn’t just technically superb but musically of the highest order. He was already a fully-developed, adult artist from the start.”

One of Saks’s obvious fortes is her ability to intuit and encourage major talent in musicians who are just beginning to emerge. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, for example, was a SCMS alum from the festival’s earliest days, before his win at the Leeds International Piano Competition made him a widely sought-after soloist.

But along with Ehnes’s musical gifts, over the years Saks realized he also possessed the one-of-a-kind skill set that would make him an ideal candidate to take over the Society’s leadership. “When the time came to start searching for a successor a few years ago, I thought he’d be a natural at running the festival.”

In striking contrast to the changeover at the Seattle Symphony — where an intensive search was conducted to lead to the selection of Morlot — the SCMS Board opted to forego that process. The result has been a frictionless transition for Ehnes, who was being groomed for the new role since being given the title of associate artistic director in 2007.

“Instead of reinventing the wheel, I want to continue building off the system that Toby has put in place over the years, which works terrifically,” Ehnes says. “What I have in mind for the festival is to refine and expand on its possibilities.”

The system in question involves a mix of returning veteran SCMS artists and newcomers: nearly all the musicians pursue careers outside Seattle. Instead of fixed ensembles, the configuration of players is flexible, constantly changing according to personnel and programming. Concerts feature a different menu each night. Interpretive decisions have to be worked out in limited rehearsal time or in the heat of performance itself. Full-length concerts are additionally prefaced by well-attended shorter recitals, usually for soloists or duos.

Ehnes’s reluctance to declare a flashy, bold new mission may sound merely like diplomatic caution. But it’s quite characteristic that he intends to rethink the SCMS model subtly and with careful deliberation — from the inside.


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