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James Ehnes — The “Musician’s Musician”

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

Putting Our Audience First

Hill Auditorium Audience Filling

Three years after Rutherford B. Hayes was made president of the United States following one of the most controversial presidential elections in our young nation’s history, the UMS Choral Union presented its first concert in 1879.

Nearly 40 years later, UMS, along with the rest of the world, faced a global influenza pandemic, which began during the final months of World War I and shut down “all places of assemblage, including auditoriums, churches, theaters, dance halls, and all places of amusement.” At that point in its history, UMS presented only a handful of concerts each season besides the annual May Festival, though the flu pandemic caused the postponement of Enrico Caruso’s only UMS appearance three days before it was scheduled.

In 2020 we face challenges again on both these fronts — a contentious presidential election that will no doubt be marked by divisiveness, and a disease that has impacted lives in our own community and beyond. This moment feels challenging, if not a bit existential. And yet, daily signs of hope and humanity abound, with the courage and commitment of so many in our own community helping us conjure a brighter tomorrow.

Through all of these challenges, UMS has been and fully commits itself to being a present and positive force within our community, providing purpose, perspective, and a sense of possibility and aspiration for all of us in these trying times.

By their very nature, the performing arts enable both faith and optimism, while demanding one’s embrace of the possible. UMS will continue to provide that anchor for our community, allowing for comfort, exploration, and sheer delight.

We appreciate your continued belief in UMS and cannot wait to welcome you back in the 2020/21 season. We also want to reassure you that we will always put the health and safety of our audiences and artists first and foremost, and will provide all flexibility and accommodation possible in the months ahead.

All of us here thank you for your continued support and belief in UMS, for joining us in the new season, and for supporting the arts throughout our community. We will embrace this new time, however it may unfold, with a renewed spirit of sharing, trust, and partnership with you, our audience.


Matthew VanBesien
UMS President


A Message from UMS’s President

Approx. 4 minutes — Watch a special message to audiences, donors, and subscribers by UMS president Matthew VanBesien.


UMS wishes you and your family health, safety, and well-being.

Here are 3 important updates to know:

The entire UMS staff has transitioned to work from home, and we thank you for your patience while we finish processing ticket donations and refunds of canceled performances. If you still have tickets to the current season and would consider donating them at full value, you can easily fill do so using our online form. Thank you for helping UMS in this moment!

We are still assessing the full financial impact of COVID-19, and we will be distributing our important Spring solicitation the week of April 20. For the safety of everyone, we encourage making a gift online (though we will certainly accommodate physical mail).

Stay tuned for our exciting 2020/21 Season announcement on April 30. Sign up for our Weekly newsletter to be notified as soon as all performance information is online and subscriptions are on sale.


Thank you for your loyalty and support. Please stay safe.

View the latest COVID-19 updates and resources from Michigan Medicine

A Note from Matthew VanBesien – June 2018

UMS Friends,

Thank you for a wonderful first season at UMS!

As we wrap up our fiscal year on June 30th, I want to extend a special thank you for the important part you play in supporting UMS. I have been so touched by the incredible commitment and passion our wonderful community has expressed over the past year. What you have helped to create here in Ann Arbor is extraordinary.


As I reflect on this past year with nearly 90 mainstage performances, I’m blown away by the breadth and scope of all that has happened at UMS this season — from our second major residency with the New York Philharmonic to Bubble Schmeisis, an incredibly unique and entertaining one-man show at the Schvitz in Detroit, as well as the inaugural No Safety Net theater series.


Equally important were 300 education and community engagement events that captivated audiences off-the-stage — from master classes with visiting artists and workshops for K-12 students to a host of activities and conversations around important social issues. We continue to advance our commitment towards uncommon and engaging experiences.


In late April it was a great pleasure to announce the 2018-19 UMS Season. Once again our team has put together a wonderfully vibrant season filled with performances that celebrate tradition, defy convention, and challenge perspectives — all while reflecting the artistic excellence that is the core of UMS.



Our 140th season opens on Friday, September 21 with a presentation of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey at Hill Auditorium, featuring the score performed live by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The UMS team is working with the College of Engineering, our partners in this presentation, to plan a series of related activities to further animate this community event. Stay tuned!

UMS distinguishes itself not just by who we bring to the stage, but in how we connect artists from around the world with our audiences — always stretching to find the richest intersections of artistic content with our audiences and local communities.

We’re looking forward to another dynamic and vibrant UMS season — one that promises unexpected moments of joy, inspiration, and discovery, as well as nights in the theater that just might change you. We hope you join us.

Wishing you a wonderful Michigan Summer!

A few dates for next season to note:

Season subscription packages are now on sale. 

Tickets to individual events go on sale to the general public Monday, August 13th.

To extend our appreciation for those who make an annual gift to UMS of $250 or more, Donor Single Ticket Day isMonday, August 6th, a full week before the public sale.

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Challenging Times Require Challenging Art


Matthew VanBesien in Nickels Arcade, with the 2017-18 UMS No Safety Net brochure. Photo by Jesse Meria.


When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy.  Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?

Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.

But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.

No Safety Net Brochure Cover

Program cover for “No Safety Net”

This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.

And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.

But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.

A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”

As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”

As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.

These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.

The cast of Hamilton addresses Vice President Pence. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.

At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.

We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.

No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.

When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.

Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.


Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.

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