On Thursday 12 January and Saturday 14 January, violinist James Ehnes took the Orchestra Hall stage to play the Brahms concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. I was at both performances, but unfortunately I can’t review either.
Well, I could, theoretically. But you’d have no reason to trust anything I say because my pro-Ehnes bias has a long history. A month after my thirteenth birthday, I heard a performance of his Tchaikovsky concerto broadcast live on public radio. I taped the concert (taped, as in taping using cassette tapes – do the kids nowadays even know what those are?), and thank God I did, because my life would have been a very different thing if I hadn’t. The first half of the concert consisted of a Shostakovich symphony that flew completely over my head. But the second half was Tchaikovsky. And it was unforgettable. It spoke to me in a way that nothing had before and nothing will again. I don’t know why; I wish I did. I’ve listened to it literally thousands of times over the last decade, and I can’t know any more if it really is as earth-shattering as I felt it to be when I was thirteen. It took on a life of its own.
I listened to that recording constantly as a teenager. I listened to it before and after school. I bought a Dover miniature score and read it during class. I listened to it before I announced to my teacher that, despite only knowing first position and a little bit of third, I wanted to be a professional violinist. (Let’s skim over how unrealistic that goal ultimately was, and just focus on the good intentions, okay?) I listened to it when I was lonely and crying and afraid. I listened to it when I was seventeen and convinced I was dying and my doctors told me nothing was wrong to me. I listened to it when I recovered. I listened to it when I injured my wrist and it seemed likely I’d never play violin again. I listened to it after my counselor suggested that maybe it would be a good idea if I gave up music. I listened to it when I was a student at the 2006 Green Lake Festival Chamber Music Workshop in Ripon, Wisconsin; I monopolized the listening room with it after everyone else had stopped practicing and gone back to the dorm for the night. I became obsessed with this recording and the violin, and I waited for the day when I would tire of them.
I’m still waiting.
At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I honestly believe that without that recording, something awful would have happened to me. I would have continued on the drifting path of study I’d been on, only bringing out the violin every week or two, then month or two. Until finally one day it would have been a year or more since I’d played last, and I’d have opened the closet door and looked at the unused fiddle and told myself, “you know, I should sell that…”
The mere thought of this alternate universe brings on a panic attack. Because it was so close to materializing.
The classical music world is competitive and cutthroat. We’re the less crazy, less attractive versions of the characters in Black Swan. We lock ourselves into practice rooms for weeks at a time. We spend our lives preparing for careers that we almost certainly will never have. We’re constantly asking ourselves, are we good enough?, and casting paranoid glances over our shoulders and realizing we aren’t. And yet despite all the pressure and the politics, a weirdly high percentage of the artists I’ve met are incredibly kind and humble, and are people worthy of looking up to, not just musically, but personally. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to meet Ehnes and chat with him a bit after various concerts over the last nine years. And despite his abilities and achievements, James Ehnes is among the kindest and humblest of them all.
So you know what? Ehnes didn’t even need to do a single thing besides walk onstage before I started misting up. On top of that, the performance was sentimental in another way, since his first appearance with a major American orchestra was actually with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1992 after winning the WAMSO competition. It was all a bit like the closing scene of a sappy Hallmark movie in which the boy-next-door protagonist, after decades of hard work, finally makes good and comes home.
I’ll try faking objectivity and try to pick out a highlight or two to describe, although this is difficult since everything he played was a highlight. For the Thursday morning performance, I was in the front row. Saturday night, I was in the first tier, third row from the back. That night I could tell it was taking a little bit longer for the sound to reach me – alas, even James Ehnes cannot defy laws of acoustical physics – but other than that, given the distance it was traveling, the sound on Saturday sounded remarkably similar to the sound on Thursday. That 1715 Strad was throwing its voice like nobody’s business. And there was such a range of dynamics, with every note, pianissimo or fortissimo, discernible from the very back of the hall. It was literally jaw-dropping. One violin is not supposed to be able to pierce through the texture of an entire symphony orchestra, especially not when playing pianissimo! But it did. Listeners who aren’t sure if it’s possible or not…rest assured, it is. It was so disorienting in such a wonderful way.
Another thing that I appreciated – especially after the puzzling Friday night Serkin performance – was the fact that Vänskä and Ehnes seemed to have relatively complementary views of the concerto. Either that, or Ehnes is capable of seamlessly blending in with an opposing approach without ever compromising his own artistic vision. Either option seems plausible.
The more restrained Thursday morning crowd didn’t applaud long enough to draw out an encore, but on Saturday night, the audience simply would not let him go. He came back onstage with Paganini 24 (“Brahms wrote nothing for solo violin,” he said from the stage, “but he did write a set of piano variations on this tune…”). He then proceeded to play Paganini 24 in a way no human being should be able to. This level of technical and musical achievement is supposed to only be attainable on disc, over the course of multiple sessions, with the help of state-of-the-art recording equipment and a crafty, cynical editor. But maybe with Ehnes it’s wise to expect the impossible. During the triple stops of the eighth variation I could have sworn there were two violinists, one suspended on the left side of the hall and the other on the right, their sounds colliding together onstage. I’ve never heard anything like it. I probably never will again.
The audience still wasn’t satiated. So he returned again with Paganini 16. (“This? Has nothing to do with Brahms,” he said by way of introduction.)
Words fail me.
You know, I’m sure Brahms third symphony afterward was fantastic, but for me, nothing was going to measure up to the electricity of seeing Brahms concerto followed by two Caprices performed by one of the great violinists of the age who singlehandedly inspired me to keep going with the violin at a time when I was dangerously close to quitting. Sorry, Minnesota Orchestra; you know I love you! I think you’ve got to start scheduling your super-duper drop-dead amazing soloists after intermission so I’m not listening to your no doubt lovely symphonic performances completely shell-shocked.
Anyway. I’m not quite sure what exactly this entry was. An Ehnes appreciation post? A glimpse into my wangsty Tchaikovsky-tinged teenhood? Me admitting I ended up having no objectivity whatsoever during Brahmspalooza? All of the above? Who knows!
There’s only one way I can think of to wrap this disjointed ramble up, and that’s by reiterating the fact that I’m so thankful not just for James Ehnes’s talent, but rather for the bigger fact that music has such a powerful ability to inspire. I’m just so damned grateful, for all of it. I think just about every musician hears a performance or two in their lives that stands out in their mind as life-changing. What were yours?
So Brahmspalooza ’012 ended on an unbelievable high note…literally.
As a postscript, happy birthday to James Ehnes, who turns 36 today. It hardly suffices, but thank you.