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James Ehnes — The “Musician’s Musician”

Matthew VanBesien

By Matthew VanBesien

Since the start of his career in arts administration, UMS President Matthew VanBesien has had many fantastic opportunities to work with and present violinist James Ehnes. Hear VanBesien share what makes Ehnes’ musicianship unique, before his UMS recital debut with pianist Andrew Armstrong on February 16.

At UMS, we have the immense privilege to engage and host such extraordinary artists each season — it is a wealth of riches! All of our artists are truly special, and with some, we have had the opportunity to build deep relationships at UMS or throughout our careers in the arts.

Someone who definitely fits in with the latter (for me, at least!) is the wonderful violinist James Ehnes, who, at long last, makes his UMS debut here later this month. We’d previously engaged James during the pandemic but were stymied the first time around, and we are thrilled to finally welcome him — in person — to Ann Arbor and UMS.

At the start of his career, James was managed by the wonderful arts manager Walter Homburger, who also managed the career of Glenn Gould. Walter was an orchestra manager and impresario by day, and I believe he only ever managed one artist at a time until he passed away in 2019. James was an artist he fervently believed in, and I have, for many years, had the great pleasure of understanding the incredible artistry and range of this remarkable musician.

I’ve known James from the beginning of my administrative career in the arts, beginning around 2000 at the Houston Symphony. It was my first real job following my 8 years as a horn player in New Orleans, and my job in Houston at that point was to ensure James was well-cared for as an artist, look after all his transportation and accommodations, and through that work (OK, I probably also took him to my favorite pub in Houston!), we became good colleagues and friends.

In addition to James’ many appearances in Houston, he appeared as a guest soloist and chamber musician for both the Melbourne Symphony and the New York Philharmonic during my tenures there, and so when I arrived here in Ann Arbor in 2017, I was determined to make certain our UMS audiences would have the chance to enjoy him as well. As one of the musicians in the New York Philharmonic once said to me, “James is one of the very finest violinists in the world — period. And, he’s a musician’s musician — someone who truly understands his own craft, as well as ours as orchestral and chamber musicians.”

James appears at UMS this February to perform as a recitalist with his longtime collaborator Andrew Armstrong, but from the very beginning of our discussions, he was eager to collaborate with faculty and students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance here at Michigan. Together, they will perform a chamber work by James Newton Howard, a very well-known composer in film and television who also composed a violin concerto for James in 2015.

Ehnes recorded James Newton Howard’s violin concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Lastly, it’s important to mention that I am not the only member of the UMS community who knows James well! Martha Darling and Gil Omenn have known James for many years, and have a wonderful association with him as the Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. My wife Rosie and I are honored to join forces with Gil and Martha to support James’ performance here at UMS!

Matthew VanBesien, UMS President

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