By day, James Ehnes reenergizes the Seattle Chamber Music Society—and its annual Summer Festival—as its new artistic director. By night, he defends the fine arts, performing in more than half of the festival's concerts armed with a single superweapon: a 1715 Stradivarius. He's Violin Man. Ehnes typically resides in Bradenton, Florida, but the masterful musician returns to Seattle this week to open up the 2013 SCMS Summer Festival, which runs June 29–July 26 at Benaroya Hall.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked with Ehnes about this summer's lineup, his decades-long attachment to the festival, and preshow twirling.

Which aspects of this year’s festival are you most excited about?

As a director, I’m in the very fortunate position of being able to put myself in all these things that I’m looking forward to. Our opening night, we’re playing the Brahms Clarinet Quintet—one of the great chamber music pillars—with a group of some of my favorite colleagues and friends. Our annual commissions piece is something that’s always really exciting for me, and I get to be in it this year—the Lawrence Dillon piece Sanctuary on July 8. Our outdoor concert at Volunteer Park—which we did for the first time last summer—was an incredibly fun time, certainly for the players and probably the audience as well. Our second outdoor concert is on July 17. Our last week, we’re focusing on a lot of pieces to be recorded. We’re going to have a producer in from England, from Onyx Classics, who’s going to be making live recordings.

When you put together a lineup for a series like the Summer Festival, what’s the selection process?

Balance is key, because I want each concert to be enjoyable as a unique event. I think we have some very dedicated, loyal patrons that come to all of them, or virtually all of them, but a lot of our audience members might come to one show. I want each one of those to be something memorable. You can’t figure, Well, if I just program nothing but blockbusters, that will keep people happy. A considerable portion of our audience has been exposed to chamber music their entire life and have been coming to our festivals for years and years and years. They want a certain amount of stuff that’s kind of off the beaten path.

Before you took the job as SCMS’s artistic director, you were already a very established performer. What made you want the gig?

I’ve never lived in Seattle. Still don’t live in Seattle. But it has become a very important place in my life. I think that the first summer I came out to play was the summer of ’95 and I haven’t missed one since. A lot of important things took place in Seattle.

[SCMS founder] Toby Saks was going to retire. I knew this was going to happen and I knew that someone was going to take over. Honestly, there were a few things that went into it. The opportunity of being able to work as an artistic director with an organization that is so well run—that has such a fantastic staff and fantastic board, wonderful history, great audience support—to be able to walk into a situation like that just all in place is an incredible thing. An incredibly rare thing. So I thought, if I ever wanted to be an artistic director of some sort of chamber music organization, I could not possibly find a better one than this.

It was also the thought that, this is such an important part of my life and my wife’s life—if someone takes it over, what if we don’t like what it becomes? Then all of a sudden we lost something that’s been a part of my life for almost 20 years. The old adage is that if you want something done right, do it yourself… I’m not saying I’m going to do it right, but I’m going to do it the way I feel like it needs to be.

Which up-and-coming local performers should people watch?

I’ve been really excited to hear a lot of wonderful young musicians in Seattle. We have an initiative with KING FM for a young artist competition. Last year, we featured a young violinist from Seattle named Marié Rossano. Marié is an incredible violinist, and we were very proud to be able to give her a bit of a platform at our festival. This year we’re featuring a violinist named Sarah Hall and a cellist named Olivia Marckx, who are also wonderfully talented young people and a great example of the great classical music education that’s going on in Seattle right now.

Do you have a preshow routine?

Not so much myself. I know a lot of my friends and colleagues do. I suppose the idea with routines is to help you to relax and feel comfortable. I find that the life is so unpredictable that being stuck with certain types of rituals, if you’re the type of person that’s like, “Well, I need to take a half-hour nap, eat two bananas, and twirl three times before the show”—what happens if life gets in the way and you’re not able to do it? You’re handcuffed, right? So I always try to just roll with the punches.

Seattle Chamber Music Society: 2013 Summer Festival
June 29–July 26, Benaroya Hall, $45

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