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Originally published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 5:07 AM

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Ehnes Quartet to make formal debut at SCMS Winter Festival

Ehnes Quartet, long an informal presence at Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals, makes its official Seattle debut on Feb. 2. SCMS Winter Festival runs Jan. 24-Feb. 2.


Seattle Times arts writer

FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival

Friday, Jan. 24-Feb. 2, Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle; single tickets $16-$48, subscription packages $135-$315 (206-283-8808 or www.seattlechambermusic.org ).

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They’ve played here before — but not officially as the Ehnes Quartet.

Violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Robert deMaine have given stellar performances at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals, and have wowed listeners at other festivals in Europe and North America as well.

At SCMS’ 2014 Winter Festival, which runs Friday, Jan. 24 to Feb. 2, the quartet will make its formal debut under the “Ehnes Quartet” name, before taking off on a short European tour that includes stops at the Louvre in Paris and Wigmore Hall in London.

Cellist deMaine, when he was in Seattle last July for the SCMS Summer Festival, shared details on the quartet’s founding.

“Unofficially we’ve been a quartet, I’d say, for three years now,” he noted. “The birth of this quartet was right here in Seattle.”

DeMaine, 44, has known Ehnes, the artistic director of SCMS, since 1988 and was long aware of Ehnes’ desire to form a string quartet.

“We enjoyed playing together so much,” he says of the quartet’s four members, “we decided to start scheduling a few concerts. It just happened rather organically. We didn’t get together with any grand aspirations, like conquering the world of string quartets.

“But now,” he says, his voice slowing down with grateful amazement, “we’re in pretty hot demand that we’re not able to fulfill. We can only do maybe a dozen concerts a year because of our respective schedules.”

Why the “Ehnes Quartet”?

Because Ehnes is the obvious superstar of the group, deMaine says.

“In fact,” he quips, “I think we should all change our last names to ‘Ehnes’.”

The quartet, which performs works by Beethoven, Bartók, Suk and Ravel at 1 p.m. Feb. 2, has built up quite a sizable repertoire in a short amount of time, deMaine says.

His own career has taken an illustrious turn in the past year, too.

DeMaine recently became principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, after 10 years as principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

But there was a period, in his 20s, when things weren’t going so well.

“I had a long and very difficult battle with alcoholism,” he explains. “It kind of halted my career. ... After losing everything, I decided to get my life in order and to come back. I’ve been sober for 15 years, and so many good things have happened since.”

One of those good things was becoming part of the SCMS festival scene in 2005 at the invitation of SCMS’ founding artistic director, Toby Saks, who died in August. He’s appeared here every year since.

“When I got the phone call from Toby,” he says, “we talked on the phone for a really long time. It was over an hour. She just wanted to find out more about me, to get to know me a little bit. Because I think that’s important to her and James. ... They want to cultivate a family here.”

In a follow-up email to our summer interview, deMaine made clear what Saks meant to him and his fellow musicians: “Toby’s quite sudden illness and being taken from us was, and truly still is, bewildering and devastating. ... Honest, articulate, and constructive, she guided everybody in a way that was truly unique to her — a mixture of brutal yet constructive honesty based on bionic ears and exquisite taste, and tremendous enthusiasm, personality and extraordinary, even intimidating, intelligence. But the message was always delivered with a motherly kindness and concern — all the while making one feel like he/she was the most important person in the world to her at that moment.”

The entire 2014 SCMS season is being dedicated to Saks.

DeMaine describes his musical life now as “four-pronged: orchestral playing, chamber music, solo and recital playing, and teaching.”

Chamber music, he says, is what ties it all together. When you’re working with a small group of musicians, he explains, it’s almost like you’re trying out your teaching skills.

“Not that you’re teaching your colleagues,” he hastens to add.

“But when you rehearse, you have to articulate things in a meaningful way, something that doesn’t just make sense to you but makes sense to your colleagues. ... It’s the highest form, I think, of musical communication,” he says. “If it weren’t for chamber music, I wouldn’t be as good an orchestral player, I wouldn’t be as good a soloist, I wouldn’t be as good a recitalist, nor would I be as good a teacher.”

In addition to the Ehnes Quartet concert Feb. 2, deMaine will take part in festival performances of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 (with a “pre-formalized” Ehnes Quartet), Mendelssohn’s Quartet for Piano and Strings in B minor and Brahms’ Sextet for Strings in G Major.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com



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