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.
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