Violin star James Ehnes weighs in on music education

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As a Manitoba native who’s now a resident of Bradenton, Florida, James Ehnes is understandably reluctant to offer an opinion on the state of B.C. schools. But when it comes to some of the services now under fire here on the West Coast, his views are unequivocal: any proper education includes exposure to art.

That’s an opinion the violinist put forward in a recent Huffington Post editorial titled “The Value of Music”, and once the Georgia Straight reaches him at home in the Sunshine State he’s happy to restate his case.

“I’m not an expert in education, so I sort of hesitate to give these one-sided statements about issues that are, of course, incredibly complex,” he cautions. “And part of the problem is that one needs to have very specific skills in school. You can’t show people fancy paintings and have them listen to beautiful music and not teach them how to count or how to read. Those are absolutely important fundamentals.…But if you see greatness, if you’re surrounded by greatness, you’ll want to aspire to that.

“People that are successful, they’re always passionate about something,” Ehnes continues. “They’ve found something that makes them think a little bit harder or feel something a little bit more intensely. I think that’s probably the best argument in favour of a well-rounded education: to have a broader understanding of the world.”

Although the 38-year-old violinist has fond memories of one classical-music loving teacher, he allows that most of his early exposure to the arts came through his parents, a trumpet player and a ballerina. That, he adds, includes the first time he heard the monumental piece he’ll perform with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra this week: the English composer Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor.

“My mother gave me a tape of Itzhak Perlman playing it for my birthday, I think, when I was probably 11 or 12 or something,” he recalls. “But it wasn’t really part of my life growing up. It’s not a piece that is quite core repertoire in Canada, or at least not the way it is, certainly, in the U.K. I started playing it a lot in the U.K. about 14 or 15 years ago, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the Elgar is an incredibly popular piece in certain parts of the world.”

Ehnes isn’t on a mission to popularize the Elgar concerto, but he’s come to view it as a work that presents an attractive challenge—or, more precisely, many attractive challenges—to the modern violinist.

“You know, Elgar was himself a violinist, although he was not a great violinist,” he notes. “He was a violinist who always wanted to be a better violinist than he was. Sibelius was sort of the same way, and I think it’s interesting that those two composers wrote violin concertos that are among the most technically difficult pieces out there.…I can imagine Elgar writing some of the things in that piece and thinking, ‘Well, this is pretty difficult for me to do, but surely someone better than me can do it.’ So there are a lot of technical hurdles, but it doesn’t come across as a virtuoso concerto per se. It’s not like a figure-skating program!”

Indeed, a marathon might be a better comparison: the nearly hourlong undertaking asks a lot of its performers.

“You have to be in good shape,” Ehnes says, laughing. “You have to be ready to tackle all those big hurdles, and of course with so many of them coming so late in the piece, it does become an endurance issue. But I don’t think there’s anything out of balance with it. It took Elgar 48 minutes to say everything he had to say, and there’s not a wasted moment, not a wasted breath.”

James Ehnes joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum on Saturday and Monday (June 14 and 16).

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