In addition to playing the established repertoire, most classical musicians make a point of engaging with the music of their time, commissioning and performing new music by living composers.
Violinist James Ehnes is no exception. “Working with living composers is one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of my career, and something that keeps music, whether old or new, fresh and alive for me,” he explains via email.
As part of his guest editorship for CBC Music, Ehnes assigned us to talk to some of the composers he has worked with recently, to better understand how new music becomes part of his repertoire and to discover more about their creative process.
Meet five of them and learn about their music below.
1. Carmen Braden
About: Carmen Braden, who lives in Yellowknife, N.W.T., describes herself as an acoustic ecologist and all her music references the sonic environment, both natural and man-made.
Piece she composed for Ehnes: Magnetic North for violin and piano.
How it came about: When Braden noticed that Ehnes and Armstrong would perform in Yellowknife on May 19, she contacted the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre and asked if they would contact Ehnes to see if he would play a piece by her. “I love connecting with visiting performers,” she explains via email, “And when the answer was positive, I couldn’t wait to write the piece for this fantastic duo to play in my hometown.“
Concept of the piece: “I used two concepts — magnets and attraction to the north — as a guide to my large structure and also in smaller details,” says Braden. “I’ve inherited a love of harmony from my teacher (Allan Gordon Bell) and so I searched for harmonies that I had not encountered before to suit the intent of the piece. And since there are two players, I used the changing balances in the dynamic of a duet to evoke what happens when two magnets of different or similar charges encounter each other.”
When you can hear it: Ehnes and Armstrong will play Braden’sMagnetic North at the Northern Arts & Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, N.W.T., on May 19 at 7:30 p.m. They will also include the piece in their concert at Koerner Hall in Toronto on May 29 at 3 p.m. as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s annual 21C Festival.
‘I’m definitely looking forward to meeting James and Andrew when they arrive in Yellowknife.’ — Carmen Braden (Dave Brosha)
2. Jeremy Turner
About: He’s the former assistant principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has performed with David Byrne, Arcade Fire, Lupe Fiasco and Sufjan Stevens (to name a few) and is now an award-winning composer for film and TV. He’s also engaged to be married to a Canadian!
Piece he’s composing for Ehnes: The Inland Seas for violin and mandolin.
Reaction to getting the commission: “I was thrilled,” he writes via email. “Not only because James and Chris are dear friends, but it’s not every day that you get asked to write a piece for two of the most talented musicians on the planet.”
What he says about the piece: “It takes its inspiration from the Great Lakes. There are five short movements (loosely based on the five lakes). The boundaries, dramatic weather, shipwrecks, waves, wildlife, industry, etc.”
When you can hear it: Ehnes and Thile will give the world premiere of Turner’s The Inland Seas on July 11 at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. It’s part of the 2016 Seattle Chamber Music Festival, of which Ehnes is the artistic director.
Jeremy Turner’s recent compositions include the theme music for the Time documentary series A Year In Space. (Supplied by Jeremy Turner)
3. Alexina Louie
About: One of Canada’s best composers, Alexina Louie has written music for pianist Jon Kimura Parker, the Gryphon Trio, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, to name only a few.
Piece she composed for Ehnes: Beyond Time for violin and piano.
Significance of the title: Louie explains via email: “It makes reference to the fact that, if written to the highest artistic standards, is intelligent, pushes the envelope of what is expected (truly creating something innovative) and if it somehow touches people, music can live past only an initial performance/experience. I didn’t write it as a ‘one-off’ piece. I wrote it so that it would continue to exist ‘beyond time.’
How Ehnes indirectly influenced the work: “In writing for a violinist of James’ calibre, where both musicality and technique are at a phenomenal level, I chose to write a piece for his level of accomplishment, so the work is extremely virtuosic,” says Louie. “I took the opportunity to stretch myself and to write for the violin in a way that I had not yet ever attempted. Of course, the smart move might have been to write an easier piece that could be played by many more violinists, but for me, creativity always wins out over practicality. Also, how often do you get the opportunity to write for one of the world’s greatest violinists? So I wrote a piece that totally engaged and challenged me, so I grew as a composer.”
When you can hear it: Ehnes and Armstrong premiered Beyond Time in 2014. To stream Louie’s music, visit the Canadian Music Centre’s website.
‘James and I … had dinner together one night and talked about the kind of composition I would write.’ — Alexina Louie (Supplied by Alexina Louie)
4. Bramwell Tovey
About: You know him as the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but Tovey is also a composer and a longtime friend and colleague of Ehnes.
Piece he wrote for Ehnes: Stream of Limelight for violin and piano.
What he says about it: “It was written with his sound in mind and his extraordinary technique and musicianship,” explains Tovey via email. “Limelight was a 19th-century method of extremely bright theatrical illumination, pre-dating electricity. Actors honed their skills to deliver all types of scenes from intimate to dramatic, coping under the one source of brilliant light. Stream of Limelight is a flow of sound under the glare of this bright light, sometimes no more than a trickle, sometimes a torrent as the violin and piano engage in a robust dialogue based upon the ascending notes heard on the violin at the outset. Like all conversations there are highs and lows, smiles, jokes, silent thoughts, disagreements — until unanimity is reached in the final moments.”
When you can hear it: Ehnes and Armstrong will play Tovey’sStream of Limelight on their cross-Canada tour, along with works by Handel and Beethoven. For concert dates, click here.
‘There’s an honesty and openness about Jimmy that comes out in the music-making and transports the listener directly to the composer’s vision without resort to artifice.’ — Bramwell Tovey (Supplied by Bramwell Tovey)
5. Aaron Jay Kernis
About: In 1998, Aaron Jay Kernis became one of the youngest composers ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. He was a student of John Adams and now teaches composition at Yale University.
Piece he composed for Ehnes: Two Movements for Bells for violin and piano
How it came about: “It was a wonderful and unexpected surprise,” writes Kernis via email. “One day my publisher called to tell me of a sudden commission from the BBC for a summer concert recital. Luckily I had a bit of space between large pieces and, while I’d known recordings of James’ with my friend, [pianist] Andrew Russo, I delved deeper and found a bounty of fabulous recordings. I immediately said yes — and amazingly for me at that time, wrote the piece quickly, in four months. And soon I’ll begin the next commission for James: a violin concerto especially for him.”
Significance of the title: “There are a number of chords in the piano that are played ‘like bells’ — resonant, but high, pungent sonorities, sort of Ivesian, and these unify the two movements. But just as important, the second movement was written in memory of my father, and the bells sounded in my ear for him while I was thinking about the piece.”
When you can hear it: Ehnes and Armstrong will play Kernis’s Two Movements for Bells at Koerner Hall in Toronto on May 29 at 3 p.m. as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s annual 21C Festival. The piece is also featured on a 2014 Naxos release called Three Flavors.
‘I’ve heard James play it fabulously with three different (all wonderful) pianists.’ — Aaron Jay Kernis (Supplied by Dworkin Company)