A new era begins for Seattle chamber music

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

In a sense, this attitude mirrors his refined artistic approach as an active musician. Ehnes is known for his ability to combine vividness with depth, a warmly sensual sound with thoughtful phrasing, in a way that serves the music itself rather than the performer’s ego.

It’s interesting to note that this trait is one he shares in many ways with Ludovic Morlot (the musicians are only two years apart). Last summer, before his colleague began his own inaugural season with the Seattle Symphony, Ehnes remarked that he’s hoping to develop a rapport with Morlot and is interested in exploring the possibility of “thematic, citywide programming” as well as “drawing on the talents of particular players to showcase in a new light.”

“There are areas of the repertoire I’m really passionate about, like late-Romantic French composers,” Ehnes explains, “that haven’t always received the musical care they deserve in festival settings. I want to make a more convincing case for these pieces, with careful consideration of how they’re prepared and programmed.”

Ehnes hopes in this way to start filling in some of the gaps in the vast chamber music literature that remain unexplored by SCMS. An example is Béla Bartók’s cycle of string quartets, one of the landmarks of the genre as well as of 20th-century music in general. Without fanfare, Ehnes has programmed (and will perform first violin in) Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 for the second concert, on Friday, February 3 — presumably the beginning of a serious traversal of Bartók, whose quartets are still unchartered territory for SCMS. So is Shostakovich’s quartet cycle (with one exception), which also makes an appearance in the Winter Festival.

“I think there are very interesting ways to arrange programming,” he continues, “so that you learn new things about celebrated pieces when you hear them in a particular context, juxtaposed with less familiar works.” There’s a synergy that works the other way, too, Ehnes points out: a warhorse by Beethoven or Mozart can help listeners engage with music they are freshly encountering. Similarly, he relishes the prospect of curating wonderful music “that’s somehow fallen through the cracks,” such as Dvorák’s Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium, which will appear alongside music of Brahms and Prokofiev in Sunday’s finale concert.

“I’m aware that there are different segments of audience. Some are coming because they really dig into the music and understand it, while some just want to let it wash over them — there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t feel my role is ever to tell people how they should feel about a piece. What’s important for me is that they have strong reactions.”

Along with tighter programming, it’s likely that Ehnes’s own high standing among colleagues throughout the music world will further enhance the reputation of SCMS beyond the Northwest. Local audiences know him primarily as a chamber musician, but Ehnes, who makes his home in Bradenton, Florida, performs around the globe as a soloist with major orchestras. He has earned comparisons with the likes of the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. He was the youngest musician ever to win first prize in strings at the Canadian Music Competition (1988) and was already appearing as a soloist in concert halls by the age of 13.

Ehnes boasts a discography that’s unusually extensive for an artist only in his mid-30s; in 2008 he won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist. The UK-based classical music magazine Gramophone selected Ehnes’s recent release of Bartók concertos as its Recording of the Month last November.

Recognition for his excellent musicianship, though, hasn’t brought Ehnes the kind of superstar recognition of peers like, say, Gil Shaham. The principal reason for that, according to music critic Pierre Ruhe, comes down to a simple matter of timing. “Someone like Shaham emerged just before the record industry’s collapse,” Ruhe explains.

Although Ehnes is only a half-decade younger, “he wasn’t able to benefit from the powerful publicity machine of the big labels,” despite having such a diverse and respected discography that ranges from Bach to John Adams. (An especially delightful release is Homage, which showcases the individual qualities of a dozen historic violins from Bellevue-based David Fulton’s incomparable collection of string instruments.)

Moreover, the celebrity culture of tinseled virtuosity tends to segregate soloists and keep them aloof from the collaborative project that is chamber music. But thanks to his deep ties to SCMS, Ehnes came of age with a keen sense of the mutual benefits of balancing chamber with solo performance.

“I think playing a lot of chamber music has helped fuel a natural tendency I’ve always had to try to feel music from the inside out,” he remarks. “There’s a danger if you’re only playing concertos that you’ll only hear things in reference to the solo line. Chamber music has allowed me to develop a deeper insight into how and why music works and into how to make it better as a performer.”

Ehnes’s transition to his new role as artistic director of SCMS coincides with the welcome news that last year’s 30th-anniversary season ended in the black, with a 25% increase in individual contributions. Still, significant challenges remain to be addressed in the Ehnes era.

One involves the summer festival’s relocation — starting in 2010 — from the cozy, relaxed picnic ambience of the Lakeside campus to Benaroya Hall’s upstairs performance hall (the 540-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall). While the latter setting is more conducive to serious music-making, its acoustics pose numerous problems for the delicate balance required by chamber music.

Tighter programming should help bring increased focus to the festival’s musical values, but the changing annual roster of performers that is a signature of the SCMS — a kind of “musical chairs” — is both a strength and a liability. Playing with new colleagues for the first time after just a few rehearsals encourages spontaneity, to be sure. Yet chamber music by its nature thrives when musicians have worked closely together over time, know each other’s tics inside-out.

Ehnes himself has established a de facto string quartet here with other SCMS musicians: violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine. The stakes are especially high in this particularly intricate literature, and Ehnes seems to be making it a priority in his programming. How well this works without being part of a full-time, year-round quartet will soon be put to the test: Ehnes and his ensemble will traverse all three of the Brahms quartets during the Winter Festival’s pre-concert recitals.

“As a performer,” Ehnes observes, “it never does any good to second-guess what people want. You have to have total belief in what you’re doing. The same thing is true when it comes to programming. You have to be an optimistic person in this business, but you also have to be realistic. What you don’t want to do is pander to your audience: how boring that would be!”

If you go: The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival takes place between February 2 and 5, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206-283-8808. Tickets: $15-45.

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