Utah Symphony
Violinist James Ehnes likes playing pieces that are new or different.

James Ehnes is a young violinist who enjoys the challenges of developing a concert repertoire that doesn't primarily rely on the standard concertos.

Unlike older, more established violinists, who frequently are content with the warhorses of the literature, Ehnes relishes playing concertos that have been neglected by his colleagues. Among them are the concertos by Benjamin Britten, Antonin Dvorak, William Walton, Alexander Glazunov and Robert Schumann.

Why he wants to play these works is simple. "There are a lot of great pieces out there, and I have a great, big appetite for pieces that are new or different," Ehnes said in a phone interview from Glasgow, where he was preparing to rehearse with the BBC Scottish Symphony under conductor Vassily Sinaisky.

Along with these concertos, as well as most of the works in the standard repertoire — Ehnes, after all, tries to be a well rounded and versatile musician — are a number of shorter pieces, which likewise aren't normally heard in concert halls. Because of their brevity, pieces such as Ernest Chausson's "Poème" or Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane" don't easily fit into the parameters of today's concert format, yet Ehnes believes that audiences (not to mention violinists) are missing out on some wonderful music. "These are special to play, and the challenges they present are unique," he said.

For his Utah Symphony debut this weekend, the young Canadian-born violinist will play one of these short pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams' gorgeous "The Lark Ascending."

"That piece is kind of miraculous," Ehnes said. "It's so evocative and unique. It's in its own world. You just can't find anything else quite like it."

Playing a work such as "The Lark Ascending" is "special," Ehnes said. "With big romantic, virtuosic pieces you know what you get. They learn quickly, because they all have (technical) things in them that you've seen before. But those things don't prepare you for these other pieces. They're so different from any concerto you'll ever play."

While Ehnes likes to distinguish himself from his colleagues in his choice of repertoire, he still enjoys dazzling his audiences with his technical skills. And concertgoers this weekend won't be disappointed in that regard. Along with "The Lark Ascending," Mendelssohn's ever popular Violin Concerto is also on the program.

"The Mendelssohn is miraculous, too," Ehnes said, but it is for a very different reason. "The Mendelssohn is exactly what a concerto should be. It's perfect in scale, pacing and scope."

And while he's already played it countless times in his young career, Ehnes said he always discovers "something new and interesting in the music, and I keep finding more and more ways of refining my playing. And because of that, I could never tire of it."

And he believes the same holds true for audiences. "Even though it isn't as ubiquitous on concert programs as it used to be, say, 50 years ago, there is a reason why it's still programmed frequently today — people want to hear it."

Ehnes has the good fortune of playing a rare Stradivarius, the "Ex Marsick" from 1715, which is on extended loan to him from the Fulton Collection. "There are eight violins and three violas in this collection. It's the most important collection of instruments in the world."

Recently, Ehnes finished a recording project, which was also filmed, playing all eight violins in a selection of showpieces by Ravel, Antonio Bazzini, Manuel de Falla, Niccolò Paganini and others.

"It was amazing to be involved in this project. It's usually very demanding making recordings, but this was just incredible. And it's really a neat thing, because you can hear these instruments in contrast with each other. Each has its own personality, and I think they showed themselves off very well."

The CD and DVD are scheduled for release this fall.

Keith Lockhart will conduct this weekend's concerts. Also on the program will be Mendelssohn's overture to "Ruy Blas" and Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 in D minor.

If you go . . .

What: James Ehnes, violin; Keith Lockhart, conductor, Utah Symphony

Where: Abravanel Hall

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

How much: $12-$48

Also: Finishing Touches, Abravanel Hall, Thursday, 10 a.m., $18 adults, $12 senior citizens, $4 students

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: www.utahsymphony.org

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com