Events & Tickets
International violin sensation James Ehnes joins forces with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Violin Fellows to share the divine solo works of Johann Sebastian Bach. When concert halls around the world first closed during the pandemic, Ehnes leaned into J.S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas – what he calls cornerstones of the solo violin repertoire. Through guided explorations in master classes and individual coachings, Ehnes has shared his reflections with NWS Fellows. Together with MTT they will explore interpretations by famous violinists from the early 1900s to today, before bringing these masterful works to life during this special event.
Clicking this link will take you to IDAGIO’s website. You will need to create an IDAGIO account to purchase. NWS does not own or operate these platforms and is not responsible or liable for the services offered.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Bach, the Lyricist
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Bach and the Dance
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Bach and the Fugue
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
Bach, the Virtuoso
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Bach at the Summit
Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006
J.S. Bach: Selections from the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
From 1708 to 1717, when Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a church organist in Weimar, Germany, he had few opportunities to perform secular music with ensembles, even as his library overflowed with inspiration from abroad. The innovative sonatas and concertos being produced by Italian and French composers were just starting to arrive in trading hubs like Amsterdam and Utrecht, and the well-traveled members of Weimar’s royal court eagerly stocked up on the latest published scores and bootleg copies to expand their court musicians’ repertoire. Those foreign sources had an immediate impact on Bach’s style (as seen in the harpsichord transcriptions he made in Weimar), even if he did not yet have much need for the instrumental music he was starting to experiment with.
Those years of preparation served Bach well when he took a new job in 1717 as the music director for a young prince in Cöthen, where his primary duty was to provide the court’s secular entertainment. With the support of a music-loving patron, and with top-notch professional musicians at his disposal, Bach put his foreign influences to use and produced many of his surviving sonatas and suites, along with many more works that have disappeared. It was in this period that Bach assembled the set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, combining newly composed material with sketches dating back to his Weimar years.
The distinction between Sonatas and Partitas has to do with the structure of the movements—the former being modeled on Italian “church” sonatas, and the latter patterned after French dance suites. Even in the French-style Partitas, Bach used Italian headings for most of the movements, and he gave the entire collection an Italian title: “Sei solo a violino senza basso accompagnato” (Six Solos for Violin without Bass Accompaniment). Astute readers of Italian have pointed out that Bach’s grammar is incorrect; “six solos” should have been written “sei soli,” using the plural form of “solo.” An argument can be made that Bach was too meticulous with his manuscripts and too well versed in the lingua franca of music to have made such a mistake. Instead, the title can be viewed as a pun: “Sei solo” is Italian for “you are alone.”
Following the four-movement template that the Roman composer Arcangelo Corelli had popularized a generation before Bach, the Sonata No. 1 in G minor begins with an unhurried Adagio. The violin accompanies its own singing melody with well-timed chords and leaps into a lower register, providing just enough bass support to frame the melodic line within the minor-key harmonies.
In true French fashion, the first four movements of the Partita No. 2 in D minor conform to the cosmopolitan dance traditions that coalesced during the reign of Louis XIV: the Allemanda (a French take on German dancing), Corrente (a.k.a. Courante, meaning “running”), Sarabanda (slow and stately, by way of Spain), and Giga (or gigue in French, modeled on the jigs of the British Isles). To preserve its rollicking flow, the Giga avoids thick chords and double-stops, instead creating the illusion of multiple voices through agile leaps, varied phrasing and echo effects.
The Sonata No. 2 in A minor also alternates between slow and fast movements in the manner of Corelli’s sonatas, and it honors the Italian tradition of constructing the second movement as a fast fugue. It was one thing to write a fugal violin sonata with harpsichord accompaniment, but Bach set himself a challenge of a whole different magnitude by attempting the same sort of polyphony with just a violin. This fugue is built on a subject that starts with a quick three-note figure, dropping from E down a narrow half-step to D-sharp, then back up to E. (Bach aficionados may recognize this exact motive from the start of the Violin Partita No. 3 in E major, and it appears in a different key to begin the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3.) That quick three-note figure and the staccato leaps that follow provide all the fodder necessary for a thorough and virtuosic fugue, interspersing episodes of fanciful elaboration among the telltale recurrences of the subject.
Returning to the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, the finale is marked with the very fast tempo of Presto, but it is really another type of gigue in all but name. (Bach’s generic tempo headings corresponded to the Italian practice of avoiding dance labels in sonatas, otherwise they couldn’t be played in churches.) To quote a German contemporary of Bach, the composer Johann Mattheson, “the Italian [gigues], which are not used for dancing, but for fiddling, … force themselves to extreme speed or volatility; though frequently in a flowing and uninterrupted manner: perhaps like the smooth arrow-swift flow of a stream.” That description is equally suited to Bach’s Italian-style barnburner of a finale.
We saw earlier that the initial portions of the Partita No. 2 in D minor observed the conventions of the French dance suite. The final Chaconne, though, is a magnificent anomoly, dwarfing the other movements and probing unprecedented depths of emotion and technique. The recurring pattern at the heart of the Chaconne first emerges in the lowest voice, starting on D, then traveling from D to C-sharp, D to B-flat, and finally G to A, at which point the cycle begins anew to form a chain of continuous variations. The result is a towering structure that remains, now and forever, the spiritual zenith of the violin repertoire.
-- © 2020 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
James Ehnes has established himself as one of the most sought-after violinists on the international stage. Gifted with a rare combination of stunning virtuosity, serene lyricism and an unfaltering musicality, he is a favorite guest of many of the world’s most respected conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Marin Alsop, Andrew Davis, Stéphane Denève, Mark Elder, Iván Fischer, Edward Gardner, Paavo Järvi, Juanjo Mena, Gianandrea Noseda, David Robertson and Donald Runnicles. His long list of orchestras he has worked with include the Boston, Chicago, London, NHK and Vienna symphonies, the Los Angeles, New York, Munich and Czech philharmonics and the Cleveland, Philadelphia, Philharmonia and DSO Berlin orchestras.
Mr. Ehnes’ recent orchestral highlights include The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall with Gianandrea Noseda, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with Alexander Shelley, San Francisco Symphony with Marek Janowski, Frankfurt Radio Symphony with Andrés Orozco-Estrada, London Symphony with Daniel Hardin, and Munich Philharmonic with Jaap van Zweden, as well as his debut with the London Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in spring 2019. In the 2019-20 season, Mr. Ehnes is Artist in Residence with the Dallas Symphony, which includes performances of the Elgar Concerto with Fabio Luisi, a play/direct program and a chamber music program. In 2017 he premiered Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto with the Toronto, Seattle and Dallas symphonies, and gave further performances of the piece with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and Melbourne Symphony.
Alongside his concerto work, Mr. Ehnes maintains a busy recital schedule. He performs regularly at Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Center Chicago, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Ravinia, Montreux, Chaise-Dieu, the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg, Verbier Festival, Festival de Pâques in Aix, and in 2018 he undertook a recital tour to the Far East, including performances in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
As part of the Beethoven celebrations, Mr. Ehnes has been invited to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas at Wigmore Hall throughout the 2019-20 season. Elsewhere he performs the Beethoven Sonatas at the Dresden Music Festival, Prague Spring Festival, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Aspen Music Festival (as part of a multi-year residency) and Bravo! Vail Festival during his residency week also including the Violin Concerto and Triple Concerto with the Dallas Symphony and Donald Runnicles. In 2016 Mr. Ehnes undertook a cross-Canada recital tour, performing in each of the country’s provinces and territories, to celebrate his 40th birthday.
As a chamber musician, Mr. Ehnes has collaborated with leading artists such as Leif Ove Andsnes, Renaud Capuçon, Louis Lortie, Nikolai Lugansky, Yo-Yo Ma, Antoine Tamestit, Jan Vogler and Yuja Wang. In 2010 he formally established the Ehnes Quartet, with whom he has performed in Europe at venues including Wigmore Hall, the Louvre Auditorium in Paris and Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in Aix, amongst others. Mr. Ehnes is the Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.
Mr. Ehnes has an extensive discography and has won many awards for his recordings, including a Grammy Award (2019) for his live recording of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, and a Gramophone Award for his live recording of the Elgar Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Andrew Davis. His recording of the Korngold, Barber and Walton violin concertos won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance and a JUNO award for Best Classical Album of the Year. His recording of the Paganini Caprices earned him universal praise, with Diapason writing of the disc, “Ehnes confirms the predictions of Erick Friedman, eminent student of Heifetz: ‘there is only one like him born every hundred years.’” Recent releases include sonatas by Beethoven, Debussy, Elgar and Respighi, and concertos by Walton, Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Strauss, as well as the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Andrew Manze, which was released in 2017 on Onyx Classics.
Mr. Ehnes began violin studies at the age of five, became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin at the age of nine, and made his orchestra debut with Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13. He continued his studies with Sally Thomas at the Meadowmount School of Music and The Juilliard School, winning the Peter Mennin Prize for Outstanding Achievement and Leadership in Music upon his graduation in 1997. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and in 2010 was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. Mr. Ehnes was awarded the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the Instrumentalist category. He plays the “Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715.
Michael Tilson Thomas is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy; Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony; and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these posts, he maintains an active presence guest conducting with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Tilson Thomas is the third generation of his family to follow an artistic career. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America. His father, Ted Thomas, was a producer in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television. His mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures.
Mr. Tilson Thomas began his formal studies at the University of Southern California, where he studied piano with John Crown, and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. At age 19 he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. During this same period, he was the pianist and conductor in master classes of Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz and worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts.
In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1974. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Mr. Tilson Thomas is a two-time Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist, curating and conducting series at the hall from 2003 to 2005 and from 2018 to 2019. In the most recent series, he led Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America both at the hall and on tour in Asia, opened the Carnegie Hall season over two evenings with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted two programs with the Vienna Philharmonic and finished with a pair of concerts leading the New World Symphony.
A winner of eleven Grammy Awards, Mr. Tilson Thomas appears on more than 120 recordings. His discography includes The Mahler Project, a collection of the composer’s complete symphonies and works for voice and orchestra performed with the San Francisco Symphony, in addition to pioneering recordings of music by Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. His recordings span repertoire from Bach and Beethoven to Debussy and Stravinsky, and from Sarah Vaughan to Metallica.
His television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS’s Great Performances. With the San Francisco Symphony, he created a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, and radio programs. He received a Peabody Award for his SFS Media radio series The MTT Files.
Mr. Tilson Thomas’s compositions are published by G. Schirmer. In 1991, he and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of his work From the Diary of Anne Frank, which was commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. In August 1995, he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Shówa/Shoáh, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. His vocal music includes settings of poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, which were premiered by Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming, respectively. In 2016, Yuja Wang premiered his piano piece You Come Here Often?.
Mr. Tilson Thomas' song cycle Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem, was premiered in 2016 by the New World Symphony, with Measha Brueggergosman as soloist. In 2019 the piece was recorded for Medici.tv at the New World Center and given its New York premiere as part of Mr. Tilson Thomas’s second Carnegie Hall Perspectives series. His first Perspectives series also featured performances of his own compositions, including Island Music for four marimbas and percussion; Notturno for solo flute and strings, featuring soloist Paula Robison; and new settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. In 2020, he led the San Francisco Symphony in the world premiere of his six-part song cycle Meditations on Rilke, and he subsequently conducted the work at the Cleveland Orchestra. Additional compositions include Street Song for brass instruments; Agnegram, an overture for orchestra; and Urban Legend, a concerto for contrabassoon that was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. In June 2020, SFS Media released an album of works composed by Mr. Tilson Thomas, featuring live concert recordings of From the Diary of Anne Frank, narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and Meditations on Rilke, sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny.
Mr. Tilson Thomas is an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was Musical America’s Musician of the Year and Conductor of the Year, was Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. He has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, has been inducted into the California Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a 2019 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.