James Ehnes: Debussy’s String Quartet

James Ehnes

I’m sure it’s obvious that one of the greatest perks of my job as Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society is to be able to program myself in my favorite pieces, year after year. Over my 20-year association with SCMS I’ve been able to perform dozens (if not hundreds) of wonderful works, but one favorite that has always eluded me is Debussy’s String Quartet. No longer!

I first got to know the Debussy Quartet as a teenage student at the Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York, a place of great importance in my life. I was assigned to play a string quartet with three other young players, and, at the suggestion of my teacher Sally Thomas, we decided to work on the Debussy. It was love at first play, I think for all of us. The time we spent working on this masterpiece, including some coaching with the great Joseph Gingold (whose teacher Ysaye had premiered the piece!), left a tremendous impression on me, and I made a promise to myself that I would come back to it many, many times over the course of my career.

Now, 25 years later, I finally have that opportunity. My enthusiasm for the piece has certainly never waned; if anything, it has strengthened and deepened. The quartet is early Debussy, composed in 1893, and shares the sound world of other masterpieces like the Suite bergamasque for solo piano (with its famous Clair de lune), the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and, to a certain extent, his opera Pelléas and Mélisande. This was only a few years after Debussy’s life-changing discovery of the Javanese Gamelan at the Paris Exhibition in 1889, and while it has hints of that exoticism that was to become an ever more important part of his compositional palette, this is music that is still deeply rooted in the 19th century. It is exciting, breathtakingly beautiful, and, to me, immensely moving.

This winter I have the privilege of playing with several Festival favorites, violist Rebecca Albers and cellist Edward Arron, along with a new face to the Festival, violinist Alexander Kerr. Alexander was the Concertmaster for many years with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Netherlands and he currently serves as the Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. January 23 can’t come soon enough.