James Ehnes: A Journey of Supreme Beauty


September 2014


James Ehnes has always been my model for everything concerning the violin. With natural simplicity, he handles the instrument better than anyone I have ever heard. He hears things that I could never hear. Fair-minded, Ehnes seems to have a very top-down and global approach to life and music. The Bach Sonata that I heard him play live the other day was of supreme beauty. The magic was in the arch form it evoked, this big architectural structure floating above us. The journey was made so much more powerful because it was thought out. Yet, it was alive.  It was one of those moments – talking about the power of music – that took you out of your body and somewhere else.


When listening to James Ehnes playing, it seems like he has such a clear idea, that he can see the whole picture of everything that is going on. In fact, for him a piece of music speaks like an entire unit, an entire entity, a big architectural structure. He compares a piece of music to a good story with a beginning, a development and an ending. The story goes to different places; you get to know the characters and the different situations before it all wraps up. Of course, while practicing, you get caught up in little details. One of the most difficult things when transitioning from learning a piece to really performing it is that a part of our mind focuses on all the little details that we need to think of while remembering where we are within the larger construction. For Ehnes, performances that are too episodic loose their effectiveness. You can love every note in a 20 minutes Bach Fugue but that doesn’t mean that every moment is the most important one. This moment must be seen in the context of that moment and everything else. This note is connected to that note in this chord and getting everything working together.  “That is sort of a later step in the creative process when you are really getting ready to perform a piece. But a crucially important one, when you know what you are doing and why you are doing it and why it works with everything else in a piece so that there is balance, so that there are proportions, so that there is perspective.”


Another thing I have always admired about James Ehnes is his sound. There are a lot of people who recognize, that have a shared understanding of a beautiful sound. Yet sound is a complex matter. Ehnes thinks that part of the reason is that it’s very hard to be objective about your own playing. “You can get fifty violinists and they will say that so and so has a beautiful sound. They recognize what a beautiful sound is and at any given time they might actually be able to create a beautiful sound, but not all fifty of them will be able to “play” with a beautiful sound.” The main problem is that we get so worried about all the other aspects of playing the violin – technique, phrasing – that sometimes we don’t really know what we sound like. So often we have an idea of what we are doing, so often we almost convince ourselves that we sound different than we actually do. “For me it’s been really valuable throughout my life to play for people that really know my playing, that really know what I am trying to achieve, that will speak very honestly about the way something sounds, what I actually sound like”, says Ehnes. He also believes that he has been lucky to do so much recording work. He now records professionally, but even growing up he would turn on the tape recorder and listen to his playing. Ehnes reminds us that there are so many beautiful violinists from the recording past that we can listen to and get inspiration from. He thinks that there is no shame whatsoever in just trying to imitate other people’s sound. Reproducing teaches you how to make different sounds. Then you can find your own sounds as time goes on.


Ehnes undeniably loves what he does and feels that it even becomes a bit of an addictive life style. “Sometimes it can get a little heavy but I feel lucky that I am in a position where sometimes the schedule gets a little heavy”, he smiles. “I haven’t got sick of it. How could I get sick of playing the greatest music, going to fun places and working with great people?” He is generally booked so far in advance that it always keeps him looking towards the future. It’s also very important to enjoy the present. “You never really know what your future is like”, warns the violinist. “Of course I am pretty confident when I play the Tchaikovsky Concerto that I will probably play it a few more times in my life. But it’s important to remember that every night can be a special night and a memorable night and something that will live with you. That really keeps me inspired.”


Inspiration is not a problem for the Canadian violinist. Playing the violin, like so many things in life, is a cumulative experience. You collect little bits of wisdom along the way. Of course everybody has certain times when they don’t feel like practicing. In those times James Ehnes’ father, who is a pretty logical man, would ask him if he really wanted to play the violin, if he wanted to be good at the violin. If that was so, there was no other option: he had to practice. Ehnes was lucky to be good at something. “People play music for all sorts of different reasons and I don’t think it’s up to anyone else to determine why another person does what they do with music, but I would say that if you are lucky enough to be good at it, you should realize how special that is. A lot of people spend their whole life trying to figure out what they are good at.” But with talent comes responsibility – you have to be responsible towards your own creative abilities. “Don’t waste your talent because nobody is good at that many things”, encourages the violinist. “So if you find what you are good at it’s terribly irresponsible not to pursue that and not to try to deal with that as much as you can. There will be a time if you don’t, then you will regret that.”