Interview with James Ehnes: Four Seasons and No Apologies

January 19, 2016, 9:37 PM · Canadian violinist James Ehnes would rather play for the hundreds of concertgoers who inevitably will fall in love with Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" than worry about a few who might have grown tired of the piece.

Because in more than 20 years of playing it, he hasn't tired of it.

"It's really resilient music -- it can be done so many different ways, and it always works," Ehnes told me, speaking by phone over the winter holidays. "Sometimes people make a point of cultivating an air of ennui, 'Oh, The Four Seasons. Oh, the Mendelssohn Concerto. Do we really need this again?' And I think, 'Well, yes we do! This stuff is great!' If I play The Four Seasons somewhere, there might be some person out there who feels that they're far too sophisticated to sit through yet another Four Seasons. But I know that there are hundreds of people out there who have never heard it, or certainly never heard it live, who are going to come away thinking, 'I really, really like this!' And that, I think, does a lot more good."

Ehnes, who will perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic next week, recently added Vivaldi: Four Seasons; Tartini: Devil's Trill; Leclair: Tambourin, recorded with Andrew Armstrong and the Sydney Symphony, to his considerable discography of more than 40 recordings, which also includes Khachaturian and Shostakovich (2014); Mendelssohn: Concerto and Octet (2010) and Paganini: Caprices (2009).

We spoke about why "The Four Seasons" holds up, how he practices for the nonstop trilling in Tartini's "Devil's Trill" and what it's like to go on a concert tour with his two toddlers in tow.

James Ehnes
James Ehnes. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

"There are those pieces where, if it's not a great performance, then it's just a complete write-off, a total loss," Ehnes said. "Of course, the Four Seasons benefits from a great performance, but it's music that can be appreciated in so many different ways. You can hear a student group perform it and still appreciate it. It's interesting, it's colorful, it's creative. Certainly it is an immediately appealing piece, but once you get beneath that surface, then it becomes even more interesting."

But aren't all Vivaldi concertos the same? There's that old yarn: that Vivaldi wrote one concerto, 600 times. Ehnes doesn't see it that way, although "at times, with some of his music, you see the same forms, the same type of violinistic techniques, the same proportions," Ehnes said. "The Seasons are different; and their familiarity sometimes masks their inventiveness. Take, for example, the slow movement of 'Autumn,' where there's no solo violin part at all; or the sound effects that are explored in various of the other movements; or the immediate, shotgun tempo changes that happen; or these episodes within the movements that seem like they're coming from a completely different world."

Vivaldi wrote "The Four Seasons" around a set of descriptive poems, written into the pages of the music. "It's so interesting, the way that he uses music to illustrate these ideas," Ehnes said. "The poetry also opens up all sorts of fun, interpretive questions." Some people treat the poetry as a minor suggestion of what should happen in the music; others go overboard, trying to render the music as special-effect accompaniment to the poetry. "So despite these being pieces that any advanced student can get through, there are interpretive questions you can ponder for years and still find different things to do, and different ways to do them."

Since Vivaldi, Tartini and Leclair are Baroque composers, did Ehnes try using a Baroque bow for this recording?

"No," James said. "As far as equipment goes, I've had some fun conversations with colleagues, and everyone comes to their own solution." For Ehnes, the solution is the use the equipment that he so passionately sought out: he plays on a 1715 Strad called the "Marsick," and a Tourte from about 1820-25. "I'm in a very lucky position to have no excuses left. For me, a comfort level with the equipment is more important than anything else," Ehnes said. "If I have something good, and I know how I want to use it, then that's going to give me more options. If I'm having trouble making a particular sound or finding a particular color, that's on me. It could be that there are certain violins or bows where it might be easier to find a particular sound, or they might be more naturally suited to playing a particular type of music. But I'm never going to develop that kind of a close comfort level with equipment if I'm always switching around."

"Some people feel certain equipment is so specifically suited to repertoire from the period when it was designed, they must use that. I've have some friends that use different bows for different pieces, or different strings for early or Romantic repertoire," he said. "I can certainly appreciate that; that's just not the way I go about it."

Stylistically, he's really neither in the "period music" or the "more Romantic interpretation" camp.

"I've certainly enjoyed collaborations over the years with people whose careers are more focused on early music than mine has been, and it's hard to know how much I've been influenced by them," he said. "In a way, this felt a more like a culmination of a lot of years, rather than a new exploration or new start. I just came to a point where I thought, 'This is how this music speaks to me, this is how I think it needs to go.'"

Ehnes' new recording also includes Tartini's "Devil's Trill," in which, of course, means that Ehnes plays that trill-filled cadenza. How does one cultivate a good trill, without getting tendonitis?

James Ehnes plays Violin Sonata in G Minor, "The Devil's Trill": III. Grave - Allegro assai, arr. F. Kreisler. The cadenza starts at 5:11:

"Getting ready for this recording, I was really focused on hand strength," Ehnes said. "If you have a violin that's set up with a really quick response, and maybe you've got low strings, you can kind of get away with just kind of fluttering the hand a little bit, and those notes speak. On a violin that's set up more like mine, it needs to be a little bit punchier and have a bigger range of dynamics. If you're not really getting those fingers down, you start hearing false harmonics and other things in there. That's a challenge in the cadenza: developing that kind of hand strength and endurance. It's only about a minute and a half long, but the hand can tire out."

Here's one thing you don't want to do: decide that "'Today is the day that I'm going to make it perfect!' and then you work on it until you've given yourself a physical injury." Instead, set specific, do-able goals that won't cause a strain. With trills that are like turns, "it can be a good idea to know just how many little turns you want to be making, to slow it down and figure out exactly what your hand wants to do. If it's the difference between four little turns or three, it's probably better to know what your plan is and to train the hand to do it," he said. If you train your hand to do it the same way every time, that will help, even if you get to the point where you're no longer consciously aware of the number.

"When it comes to trills, the clarity of the trill is certainly just as important, if not more important, than the speed," Ehnes said. They should be clear, clean, fast -- in that order. "Clarity over speed. If you're practicing for clarity, you'll build strength, and strength will build speed. But if you're practicing for speed, then you're never going to build the strength that will lead to clarity."

These days, in addition to practicing trills, concertizing all over the world and making recordings, Ehnes is also spending as much time as he can with his family, including his daughter, 3, and son, 1.

"Before the kids are in school we're trying to be on the road together as a family as much as possible," Ehnes said. "That's super-fun, but it does get expensive and complicated, figuring out the proper lodging, getting the multiple tickets, bringing the car seats. It's that weird inverse proportion: the smaller the child, the more stuff they seem to need! (He laughs) So there's only room for Dad to bring three pairs of socks on this trip, okay!"

"But also, there's a kind of mental hurtle," he said. "For example you might spend the morning going to the Children's Museum, then you're trying to get one down for a nap and the other's not tired; your daughter's saying, 'I don't want to wear purple, I only want to wear pink, and I don't want to wear light pink, I want to wear hot pink!' and your son is freaking out over something or other....then all of a sudden: Here's the Brahms Concerto, go! That's a little bit of a mental trick."

"Performing is such a self-centered activity; in a certain sense, it kind of has to be about you," Ehnes said. "Parenthood is exactly the opposite of that. At the same time, I feel like my children have been the greatest gift to me, personally, and I'd like to think that I'm definitely a better person for them being around. How could that not reflect itself in something of what I'm trying to communicate, musically?"

"Also, it's so neat to experience music with children -- the way that they respond to it, the way that they so instinctively understand that it is a method of communication," Ehnes said. "We spend so much time in the practice room, thinking about technical details, or looking at the score saying, 'Does that mezzo-forte come on the third sixteenth note or on the second sixteenth note?' -- things like this. Then you play something, not even very well, in front of little kids and they start hopping and dancing around. Or they say, 'No, I don't like that one.' You think, well, that's really much more important.

"Parenthood is so funny. Before you have kids, everybody tells you certain things. People tell you that kids are expensive, they get sick, you never sleep and you never have any time for yourself - but parenthood is the greatest thing ever! And you think, well that definitely sounds like crazy talk, it doesn't make any rational sense," he said. "Then you realize, it's all exactly true: when you have a kid you turn into a crazy person, and you're perfectly happy to be that crazy person."

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January 21, 2016 at 06:31 PM · It's interesting to have some perspective on the practical means of achieving the interpretation you want, which you almost never get from interviews with artists. I will have to check out this cd. I heard a wonderful Prokofiev Violin Concerto 1 on the radio the other day, and when they announced it was James Ehnes at the end, I was made an instant fan.

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