Ehnes Quartet demonstrates mastery of instrument and inspiring instruction

Ehnes Quartet demonstrates mastery of instrument and inspiring instruction
Mercer student Jecoliah Wang plays Sibelius' "Violin Concerto in D minor" for masterclass
Mercer student Jecoliah Wang plays Sibelius’ “Violin Concerto in D minor” for masterclass

Violinist James Ehnes boasts an unsurpassed resume. He has recorded and performed Vivaldi, Bartok, and John Adams among works from every corner of the repertoire. His total published recordings now top 35 CDs, recorded as collaborations with various symphonies and his very own Ehnes Quartet.

The Quartet has existed in a multitude of formations, until becoming solidified in its current from in 2010. Since that time, the group has toured and blown the top off venues from Montreal to Miami. Amy Schwartz-Moretti, director of the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer, is a violinist and distinguished member of the entourage. By nature of this fact, the Ehnes Quartet finds itself coming to Macon on a semi-regular basis.

One of these rare but special visits took place this last week, as the Ehnes Quartet performed and worked with MCS students in masterclasses. The Wednesday night concert was a testament to the infallible mastery of these musicians. Regardless of their full-time occupations, each maintains their status as the most skilled and pristine players in the field.

The program opened with the explosive Beethoven Quartet No. 11 Op. 95. The piece is fiery and exhausting for both the audience and performers. Beethoven was not a fan of empty time in music, and this piece is an acute example. The entire first movement, from the initial burst of energy never stops. Each instrument interrupts his neighbor before a line can end. It reminds one of a ferocious family gathering where everyone wants to talk over each other. The grace of this is that the music is thoroughly engaging, and interest never subsides.

Beethoven holds the crown for composing groundbreaking works for small ensemble. His quartets are by far his most cherished works, and the Ehnes Quartet have faith in that notion. Including two complete Beethoven Quartets on one program is ambitious, both because it is physically taxing and that it demands the utmost of musical attentiveness and sensitivity. Yet, the understanding that the musicians have with Beethoven’s works is strong and even extraordinary. The nuances of each movement, of every melody, and even rests were executed with a mastery only evident in the most dedicated and accomplished musicians.

The namesake of the program, the “Voces Intimae” Op. 56 by Sibelius, was an altogether separate but equally impressive entity. Prior to playing, Ehnes described the anxiety that the group had about performing the piece. So poetic and descriptive, the piece is enrapturing, evoking an existential feeling in the performer and listener alike. Whilst performing, it was clear that the members of the quartet had surrendered to the music. Each had become so involved in the music of Sibelius, that they seemed inevitably liberated from the notes on the page. Truly a masterwork to hear and a spectacle to witness, the Ehnes Quartet delivered a much-needed musical epiphany to their Macon audience.

As if a demonstration of their uncanny chops weren’t enough, the group spent the next morning teaching in masterclasses. Cellist Robert DeMaine exhibited an inspiring maturity and wit to his class, one clearly receptive by the students. It is a talent of his to be able to pinpoint exactly what a player needs, and then communicate in a way tailored to the receptivity of the individual. Principal Cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, DeMaine exposed the fact that great performers, however rare, can teach equally well.

James Ehnes gave his own class, as just another example of his dedication to all facets of the musical world. It was an indubitable pleasure for the students to meet and work with such an esteemed professional. This year alone, Mr. Ehnes has been recognized by the JUNO awards, another accomplishment revealing his unprecedented success. No doubt his stop in Macon has given the students a chance to envision a similar path for themselves.