Ehnes Fans Flame Of Chamber Music At Seattle Festival

Violinist James Ehnes is in his third season as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.  (Photo by Ben Ealovega)
Violinist James Ehnes is in his third season as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival.
(Photo by Ben Ealovega)
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE – James Ehnes is busy. Artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival, the 38-year-old violinist is up to his eyebrows rehearsing the three works he’s playing in this opening week of the festival – Schubert’s Octet in F major for Strings and Winds, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, and Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – as well as welcoming new musicians or putting out brush fires like mislaid parts.

The late cellist Toby Saks founded the society in 1982.
The late cellist Toby Saks founded the society’s festival in 1982.

The four-week festival, which began on July 7, was founded in 1982 by cellist Toby Saks. It includes three concerts a week in downtown Seattle. Over the years, it has increasingly attracted musicians of the highest caliber, many with prestigious awards under their belts. During Saks’ tenure as artistic director, she always treated the musicians as family, opening her large house for rehearsals going on in different rooms and hiring a chef to feed everyone.

Ehnes’ stamp now shows on the programming quite clearly. For the main part, Saks stuck to strings and piano, with occasional winds or harp. This year, Ehnes has programmed chamber music with winds in seven concerts, including Stravinsky’s Octet, and he has also embarked on vocal chamber music for three concerts—Schumann, Brahms, and Vaughan Williams.

“There’s a hole in the music world where vocal chamber music is concerned. Presenters don’t get into voice with mixed instruments at all. It only gets heard in special venues like Marlboro,” says Ehnes, who is excited to introduce it here.

It’s Ehnes’ 20th consecutive summer performing here, and his third as artistic director. “When I was first invited, it was such an opportunity,” he says, “and I had such a great time. Toby and I got close quickly, and as my career developed, I put aside the time to be here because it became a very important part of my life.”

For some years, Ehnes shadowed Saks, who made it clear to musicians, audience, and administration that this was her chosen successor. Just in time. A few days after last summer’s festival ended, Saks died of a fast-moving cancer diagnosed only weeks earlier.

“I learned so much from her experience,” Ehnes says. “She talked with me, discussing what worked and what didn’t. I benefit from the level of trust she built up with everybody involved.”

One of the unusual social aspects of the festival, he says, “is the almost personal sense of ownership the musicians feel. We feel it’s our festival, and we want to take care of it.”

Participants in the Seattle Chamber Music Society's Summer Festival in performance.
Participants in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival in performance.

The format is part of what draws players back. Musicians come and go; some here briefly, others for a week or more. On the three weekly programs, they play one piece per concert. “It allows people a chance to really invest in what they are doing,” says Ehnes. “They are not overworked, but they are not sitting around, either. There’s time to enjoy Seattle, get to know the others involved, and really get into the music. This isn’t always easy elsewhere.”

In 1985, Saks inaugurated free pre-concert recitals, because it was Bach’s 300th anniversary and she wanted to include the Bach suites. The popular recitals have continued ever since. The program is whatever that person wants to play. “It’s rare,” says Ehnes, who at his first concert in his first season played a Bartók solo sonata. “Toby habitually got ideas from musicians — and I’ve stolen that from her: What are you particularly excited about that I don’t know? Unfortunately, it’s a rare thing that performers are asked that.”

This year, one is Vaughan Williams’ early Quintet in D major for winds and strings, recommended by cellist Bion Tsang. He’ll join in a performance of it July 16.

Seattle's Benaroya Hall, site of the Summer Festival.
Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, site of the Summer Festival.

Ehnes tries to have programming done well ahead, with next winter’s two-week festival complete and next summer close to two-thirds done. Saks, he says, chose the music first and then fitted the performers in, but Ehnes does it simultaneously.

“It’s quite complex. Most of the time, I don’t program certain pieces unless I know who’s going to play it.” He points out that certain works suit some musicians better than others. “People come from lots of different walks of life,” he says. “For some, availability is limited if you don’t ask them early, others don’t know their plans until fairly late. I guess it’s really part of the fun. ”

Ehnes is proud of the amount of music the society provides free of charge – concerts in the park, open rehearsals, library previews, always an important part of the mandate. He’s grateful to the incredible job done by the staff in keeping their arms around all the details: “They make it seem to happen so effortlessly, so it’s not so overwhelming to me.”

Looking to the future, he is gradually expanding the musical scope to include more of both earlier and new music.

“It’s human nature to be thinking always of bigger, but it’s not about that. Part of the beauty of what we do is the quality with which we do it. I want to find the balance. The festival needs to remain the intellectual property of the music lovers of Seattle, but we have a real opportunity to become a destination for [the wider community of ] music lovers.”

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle Times, City Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.