LSO International Violin Festival: Meet James Ehnes

Hailed as the 'Jascha Heifetz of our day', multi-award winning violinist James Ehnes joins us for the LSO International Violin Festival. Find out more about him, his violin, and Korngold's Violin Concerto in this blog.

James Ehnes

James Ehnes was born in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada in 1976 to a family of artists - his father was a long-time trumpet professor at Brandon University and his mother a former ballerina. He began to play the violin at just 4 years of age, and by age 9 he was a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin; when he was 13 he made his orchestral debut with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. He went on to study at The Julliard School, winning the Peter Mennin Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Music upon graduation. In 2007 he became the youngest person ever elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada (which is the second highest honour for merit in Canada).

Ehnes has performed in over 30 countries on five continents, has collaborated with a long list of orchestras, and is a favourite guest of many of the world's most respected conductors. He has an extensive discography and has won many awards for his recordings, including a 2008 Gramophone Award, a 2008 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, and ten JUNO awards (the most recent of which was awarded in March 2015 for Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber Music). He was shortlisted as Instrumentalist of the year for the RPS Awards 2015.

James Ehnes also tours with his string quartet, the Ehnes Quartet, and is Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

LSO History

James Ehnes made his debut with the LSO in 2005 under Richard Hickox in Brighton, performing Elgar Violin Concerto. Perhaps the highlight of his career with the LSO to date, Ehnes performed the Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Gergiev in New York's Avery Fisher Hall in 2012. He also performed a solo recital of music by Bach in LSO St Luke’s in 2008; he will be back at St Luke's on 11 June to perform two sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms respectively: 'These are two of the greatest violin sonatas ever composed; there’s no special reasoning for programming them together, other than the joy of being able to play them both on the same day!'

On performing with the LSO, James Ehnes says, 'Playing with the LSO is always a joy and an honour. Working with such great musicians inspires me to be at my best, and always seems like an opportunity for something very special. It will be a particular pleasure to be working with my friend Marin Alsop, whom I have known since I was about 14 years old. We have performed the Korngold together before, and feel the piece very much in the same way.'

The Concerto

Korngold’s Violin Concerto was premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz, for whom it was written, and the St Louis Symphony. Heifetz was also the first to commit the work to vinyl, in 1953.

The concerto was written when Korngold was at the height of his fame as a film composer in Hollywood and is considered to be his best and most well-known work. Much of the score is a skilful reworking of themes from his film music; excerpts from Another Dawn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Achingly Adverse can be heard (listen to examples in our blog about Korngold's Violin Concerto). It has been said that, ‘Korngold’s Violin Concerto, like the rest of his music and his whole career, mixes sadness and sweetness, regret and exultation, and in the end becomes its own affirmative consolation’ (The Wall Street Journal). The concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of Korngold’s childhood mentor, Gustav Mahler.

After the premiere Korngold said, ‘In spite of the demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated more for a Caruso than for a Paganini. It is needless to say how delighted I am to have my concerto performed by Caruso and Paganini in one person: Jascha Heifetz.’

James Ehnes, who has been hailed as the ‘Jascha Heiftetz of our day’ (making his choice of the Korngold Violin Concerto most appropriate!), says ‘It’s a wonderfully rewarding piece to play, with beautiful melodies, great harmonic flavour, and plenty of virtuosic fireworks.’

Find out more in our blog 'Korngold's Violin Concerto: From Silver Screen to Concert Hall' 

The Violin

James Ehnes plays a 1715 'Marsick' Stradivari, an outstanding instrument from the peak year of Antonio Stradivari's 'golden period'. The violin briefly belonged to the Belgian violinist and composer Martin Pierre Marsick (1847–1924), who owned it before running into financial difficulties, and it subsequently found its way to Soviet Russia.

Ehnes was introduced to the instrument in November 1996 by the US-based violinist and dealer Alexander Sobolevsky. 'It was a leap of faith on his part,' he told The Strad in 2014. 'I was only 20 at the time, but he felt I needed to see this violin.' 

Ehnes has been playing the violin since September 1999. 'It's not an easy fiddle to play, at least not the way I prefer it to be set up,' he says. 'It's a very healthy and stable instrument, but it is extremely sensitive, and the way I like it to be adjusted requires it to be played in a particular way.' 

He explains: 'When my violin is set up the way I like, it can fight you if you're not playing well – even slightly out of tune chords don’t ring, and there's a decent amount of resistance that requires a lot of bow control. It would probably be uncomfortable for an amateur, but the tonal variety and range of dynamics that are available are really inspiring ... it was love at first sight/play. My favourite things about it are its extremely broad range of colours and its capacity for tonal refinement.'


Some excerpts originally printed in The Strad and re-printed with permission.

James Ehnes appears in the LSO International Violin Festival at the Barbican on Sunday 7 June, performing Korngold's Violin Concerto, and at LSO St Luke's on Thursday 11 June, performing two sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms.
Buy tickets to the concert at the Barbican on Sunday 7 June
Buy tickets to the concert at LSO St Luke's on Thursday 11 June

We'll be getting to know the stars of the Violin Festival on the LSO Blog throughout the Festival, so keep checking back to read out latest interviews and behind the scenes stories.