MCO with James Ehnes



The fact that no introduction is required for James Ehnes won’t stop us from gushing about his towering achievements.

The Brandon native’s career took off like a shot in his teens, when he performed as a soloist with several major orchestras — including the MCO. By his early 30s he’d been elected to the Royal Society of Canada, appointed to the Order of Canada, earned an honorary doctorate, and won a Grammy for one of over 40 CDs he’s recorded.

A musician whose virtuosity knows no bounds, Ehnes’s playing might simply be described as the best. The Globe and Mail calls him “the Jascha Heifetz of our day.” For this concert Ehnes will play-conduct three big ones from the common practice era: Elgar’s String Serenade, Dvořák’s Serenade, Op. 22, and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61.

James Ehnes … violist?

Ehnes’ talents run as wide as they do deep. Did you know that he also plays the viola? He’s recorded and performed with the instrument, though usually he’s heard on his $8 million Stradivarius violin. As well as playing the Strad for this concert, Ehnes will conduct the orchestra.

The concert begins at 7:30 pm on September 13th in Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster at Maryland. Tickets are $34 for adults, $32 for seniors and $10 for students, including GST, at McNally Robinson, the West End Cultural Centre (586 Ellice at Sherbrook), Organic Planet (877 Westminster Ave) or MCO’s Ticketline (204-783-7377).

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Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Anne Manson, Music Director
Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster
Westminster United Church
13 September 2016

James Ehnes, conductor and violin soloist


Edward Elgar
Serenade for Strings, in E Minor, Op. 20

Antonín Dvořák
Serenade, in E Major, Op. 22

Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61

Concert sponsor / Wawanesa Insurance
Music Director sponsor / Elaine & Neil Margolis
Concertmaster sponsor / Concord Projects Ltd.

James Ehnes

Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over thirty countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of the most celebrated orchestras and conductors. In the 2015/16 season James performed concerts with the Mozarteumorchester Salz­burg, Royal Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, and the Danish National, Melbourne, Sydney, San Diego, and Washington DC’s National symphony orchestras. He returned to Wigmore Hall for two recitals, embarked on an extensive national recital tour of Canada, and appeared with the Ehnes Quartet on tour in Europe, Korea, and across North America. He also led the winter and summer festivals of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, of which he is the Artistic Director.

James Ehnes has an extensive discography of over forty recordings featuring music ranging from J.S. Bach to John Adams. Recent projects include a CD of Franck and Strauss Sonatas, a recording of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Two Movements (with Bells) written for James, discs of works by Berlioz and Janáček, Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto paired with Shostakovich’s String Quartets Nos. 7 and 8, an American Chamber Music disc, a double CD of the complete violin works by Prokofiev, a disc featuring concertos by Britten and Shostakovich, four CDs of the music of Béla Bartók as well as a recording of Tchaikovsky’s complete oeuvre for violin. Upcoming releases will include works by Debussy, Respighi, Elgar, Leclair, Vivaldi, and Tartini. His recordings have been honoured with many international awards and prizes, including a Grammy, a Gramophone, and ten Juno awards.

James Ehnes was born in 1976 in Brandon. He began violin studies at the age of four, and at age nine became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin. He studied with Sally Thomas at the Meadowmount School of Music and from 1993 to 1997 at The Juilliard School, winning the Peter Mennin Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Music upon his graduation. Mr. Ehnes first gained national recognition in 1987 as winner of the Grand Prize in Strings at the Canadian Music Competition. The following year he won the First Prize in Strings at the Canadian Music Festival, the youngest musician ever to do so. At age 13, he made his major orchestral solo debut with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal.

He has won numerous awards and prizes, including the first-ever Ivan Galamian Mem­orial Award, the Canada Council for the Arts Virginia Parker Prize, and a 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant. James has been honoured by Brandon University with a Doctor of Music degree (honoris causa) and in 2007 he became the youngest person ever elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada. In 2010 the Governor General of Canada appointed James a Member of the Order of Canada, and in 2013 he was named an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, limited to a select group of 300 living distinguished musicians. James Ehnes plays the ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius of 1715. He currently lives in Bradenton, Florida with his family.

© Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. Program notes written by Don Anderson except where noted. Biographical material is supplied by the artists or their representatives. Program subject to change.

Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20
Sir Edward Elgar

Numerous front-ranking British composers, including Vaughan Williams, Britten, Bridge, Tippett, Ireland and Holst, have found writing for the rich, expressive and flexible medium of the string orchestra a highly congenial practice. Elgar’s contributions were small in number but substantial in every other sense. When fellow composer Herbert Howells asked him for the secret of his understanding of strings, Elgar replied, “Study old Handel. I went to him for help ages ago.”

This lovely, warm-hearted Serenade was Elgar’s first work for string orchestra. It was followed by the Introduction and Allegro (1905), Elegy (1909), and Sospiri (1914). Its origins appear to lie in three pieces, dating from 1888, the manuscript of which has disappeared. The premiere most likely took place in May 1888, with the Reverend Edward Vine Hall conducting the Worcestershire Musical Union. At that stage, the movements bore titles: Spring Song, Elegy, and Finale. “I like ‘em, (the first thing I ever did),” Elgar told a friend, Dr. Charles Buck, later that year.

He revised and re-titled the three pieces in the spring of 1892, in time to offer what he then called Serenade as a third anniversary present to his wife, Alice. The first performance of that version was probably given by the Ladies’ Orchestral Class in Worcester, an ensemble which Elgar trained and conducted. The first complete performance by a professional ensemble was given in Ant­werp, Belgium in 1896.

At first, British audiences greeted the Serenade with indifference. It remained unheard in London until 1906, when Elgar conducted it himself. It has three brief movements, two compact, animated sections framing the heart of the work: a haunting Larghetto.

Author Michael Kennedy wrote that together with the stirring concert overture, Froissart (1890), the Serenade shows “that Elgar was already a master of the orchestra, rare in English music, that he lived and breathed the orchestra as naturally as the air around him, and that, given the spur of the chance of performance in a suitable setting, this kind of music was already within his power.” In later life, Elgar often referred to the Serenade as his favourite of his works.

Words of wisdom from Herbert Howells: “Sonority it is—sonority without noise—which is the greatest abiding power of the string medium. In a world of sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, and of noise magnified to the nth degree, this is it—sonority without noise that marks the supreme contribution made by string music to the fund of our musical enchantment.”

Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22
Antonín Dvořák

For Dvořák, music’s primary function was to praise the many aspects of life that gave him joy. As he put it in a letter he wrote to a friend during the composition of his Seventh Symphony, “Today I have just finished the second movement of my new symphony, and am again as happy and contented in my work as I always have been and, God grant, may always be, for my slogan is and always shall be: God, love and country! And that alone can lead to a happy goal.”

This charming Serenade is one of his first truly characteristic works, as well as the earliest of his compositions to receive regular international performances. Its optimistic tone reflected his happiness at the time he created it. He had recently won a grant from the Austrian government, one which would allow him to devote more time to composition. Three of Vienna’s most distinguished musical citizens made up the judging panel: conductor Johann Herbeck, critic Eduard Hanslick, and no less a composer than Johannes Brahms. Charmed and impressed with the music Dvořák submitted for the prize, Brahms became a life-long friend and champion. He proved instrumental in assisting the late-blooming Dvořák to become known outside Bohemia.

Dvořák composed the Serenade in just 12 days, 3 to 14 May 1875. Several additional works followed in rapid succession, including major chamber compositions, Symphony No. 5, many songs, and sketches for two substantial vocal works: Vanda, a full-length opera, and an expansive choral work, the Stabat Mater.

The premiere of the Serenade was given in Prague on 10 December 1876. Adolf čech conducted the combined string sections of the Czech and German theatre orchestras. In form and spirit it resembles a serenade or divertimento by Mozart, given additional warmth and colour with flavours of Czech folk music.

Attractive melody flows through each of its five concise movements. The opening section, Moderato, is sweet, warm and relaxed. The gentleness continues throughout much of the following waltz. Its minor-key tonality adds an overlay of wistfulness, and the central trio section builds to an almost vehement climax. Every emotional cloud is sent packing in the vivacious scherzo that follows. This is the movement of the serenade where Dvořák displayed his Czech heritage most directly, yet even it is not carefree. The pulsing melody of the central section has an almost operatic personality. The serenade’s emotional heart lies in the slow, gloriously expressive fourth movement. The brisk, exultant finale pauses for breath only long enough to give the serenade a cyclical feeling by briefly quoting themes from, in turn, the fourth and first movements.

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is widely held to be the greatest piece of its kind, not simply because it is a fine concerto, but because it is a masterly composition, period.

In its gentleness and unassuming confidence, it resembles several other works, including the fourth symphony and Piano Concerto No. 4, that he composed during what was even by his standards an intensely creative period: 1805 to 1806. By that time he had already acquired considerable experience at writing for violin. He studied it himself in his youth (along with the viola), before deciding on the piano as his principal performing instrument.

On the creative side, an incomplete torso is all that remains of a concerto dating from the early 1790s, while his two appealing romances for violin and orchestra, composed during the first years of the nineteenth century, may have served as models for the slow movement of a full concerto. All that was missing to bring about the creation of a complete piece was a spark from a specific source of inspiration.

It came from twenty-six-year-old Franz Clement. This child prodigy had risen to the status of acclaimed soloist, and also served as concertmaster and conductor of the pit orchestra in Vienna’s prestigious Theatre an der Wien for a full decade. According to a contemporary report, his style “is not the robust, powerful playing of the school of Viotti, but it is indescribably graceful, dainty, elegant.”

Naturally, Beethoven reflected these qualities in the concerto Clement commissioned from him. Although by no means an easy piece technically, its principal challenges lie in expressiveness, spirituality, and because of its broad dimensions, in sheer physical stamina. Beethoven jokingly inscribed it in multi-language punning style as “Concerto par Clemenza [concerto written in clemency] pour Clement primo violino e direttore al theatro a vienna.”

Clement set a specific date for the premiere: 23 December 1806, at a concert designed for his own financial benefit. Due to the foot-dragging casualness with which Beethoven regularly completed commissioned works (as opposed to the great pains he took with the pieces he wrote solely at the call of his own muse), the first performance turned out to be virtually a read-through at first sight.

Modern audiences would have found it an odd occasion. The first movement was heard during the opening half of the program, followed by a solo work which Clement had written himself, played on a one-string violin, held upside-down; the second and third movements were performed later on in the concert. Some writers have speculated that Clement’s circus-like solo represented either an act of revenge against the tardy composer, or a desperate bid for acclaim, born of his fear that the challenging, under-rehearsed concerto was unlikely to find success.

His interpretation of the concerto drew raves from the press, but the piece itself received at best a lukewarm reception. In the Wiener Theaterzeitung, Johann Nepomuk Möser wrote: “Connoisseurs of music are unanimous in respect of Beethoven’s concerto: it possesses a certain beauty but the work as a whole often appears to lack unity and the endless repetition of some ordinary passages can be tiresome. It confirms that Beethoven should use his undeniably abundant talent to grace us with works equal to his first two symphonies, his charming Septet in E-flat, the brilliant Quintet in D Major or several of his earlier compositions which will undoubtedly always guarantee him a place amongst the best composers. One fears that if Beethoven continues on this way he will be doing neither himself nor his listeners a favour …”

Clement took the concerto on tour, but nowhere was it greeted with more than polite acceptance. Enjoyment required a shift in taste, away from the virtuoso stunts that audiences preferred, towards Beethoven’s conception of soloist and orchestra as equal partners in the presentation of substantial, fully symphonic musical arguments and developments.

The piece only began to establish itself in 1844, when thirteen-year-old soloist Joseph Joachim demonstrated the concerto’s manifold excellences through his performances in London under Felix Mendelssohn’s direction. Mendelssohn, an inveterate explorer of unjustly neglected music, had already undertaken similar rescue missions on behalf of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was published 1808, with a dedication not to Clement but to Stephan von Breuning, a friend of Beethoven’s since youth. That same year, it also appeared in a version for piano and orchestra which Beethoven produced at the request of composer / publisher Muzio Clementi. No record remains of this edition being performed during Beethoven’s lifetime, and it has been rarely heard since.

Beethoven’s piece is one of the earliest of the cornerstone violin concertos. It also set a precedent for these works to be the single such creation by each composer, a pattern followed by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Sibelius, Walton, Hindemith and Stravinsky. One of the main reasons for this pattern is that composers, save the occasional exception such as Sibelius, are much more likely to have been trained as pianists than violinists.

The expansive first movement of the Beethoven concerto bears a relaxed, leisurely countenance. From time to time, moments of drama provide contrast. The slow movement, a set of variations on a lyrical theme, glows with Olympian warmth. The gracefully dancing final rondo, which follows on without a break, brings the concerto firmly and joyfully back to earth.

© Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. Program notes written by Don Anderson except where noted. Biographical material is supplied by the artists or their representatives. Program subject to change.