Ask conductors and they will tell you they have a short list of soloists to call upon whenever a concerto is programmed and St. Louis Symphony conductor David Robertson is no exception.
When Robertson conducts the nation's second-oldest orchestra at the Mondavi Center on Sunday evening, he will be working with one from that list: violinist James Ehnes.
"I have maybe six violinists I tend to work with, and James is one of them," said Robertson via phone from St. Louis between orchestra rehearsals.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, Ehnes will perform Alban Berg's Violin Concerto in a program that includes Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 and Brahms' "Variations on a Theme of Haydn."
Ehnes, 37, who grew up in Canada, has won numerous awards and prizes, including a Grammy and a Gramophone Award.
Robertson has played a key hand in Ehnes' career. In some ways, Robertson is more of a champion than collaborator.
Robertson first tapped Ehnes in 2000 for the Beethoven violin concerto. Robertson was a young and up-and-coming conductor at the Orchestre du Lyon, France, the first American conductor to hold that post, which he concluded in 2004.
He liked what he saw of Ehnes both in rehearsal and performance. "It's always nice when you discover someone that is just really über-talented," Robertson said.
Once his conducting career took off, he hired Ehnes as a soloist with top-tier orchestras like the Chicago Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.
That composer-soloist relationship is now its 13th year and the result is that they are of like mind in the rehearsal setting. Often words are not necessary to get a point across.
"James and I have this kind of mind meld thing going on," Robertson said.
That mind meld has each man anticipating what the other wants out of certain parts of the Berg concerto.
"The really great perk for me as a conductor is getting to a place in this profession where you pretty much work with soloists you feel that way about," he said.
For Ehnes, working on the Berg concerto with Robertson is a plum opportunity.
"I'm particularly thrilled to do the piece with David because he has such an incredible understanding of 20th century music," Ehnes said. "And it's not a piece that comes along every day so it's kind of a special occasion whenever it's programmed."
The concerto occupies a unique position in the music literature. It's a piece with a profound idea behind it and an awful lot of emotional subtext, said Ehnes.
"It's one of those things that you can start peeling away layers and it gets ever more complex the more deeply you get into it," he said.
Berg, a student of Arnold Schoenberg, wrote the two-movement piece in 1935 as a commission. He was about to start writing it when the 18-year-old daughter of a close friend died from polio. He wrote the work as a requiem for her.
Unlike most works from composers that adhered to the 12-tone compositional technique espoused by Schoenberg, Berg's music is neither cerebral nor emotionally distant.
"What makes the Berg concerto special among the works of 12-tone composers is that with Berg the emotional content comes first," said Ehnes.
Sunday's concert will mark the orchestra's second visit to the Mondavi in two years.
"It would be great to have a regular presence at Mondavi," said Robertson.
The orchestra's presence at UC Davis has been structured as a mini-residency. At a school matinee concert at 11 a.m. today at the Mondavi Center, it will perform Copland's "Appalachian Spring." In addition, musicians will conduct master classes, as well as a side-by-side rehearsal with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.
Also today, musicians will perform in the unusual "Egghead Music Walk" at 2 p.m., in which musicians will perform six world-premiere pieces composed by UC Davis music faculty. Those free performances will be given at the campus sites of six "egghead" sculptures by Robert Arneson.
The orchestra will continue its residency with some of its musicians performing at the Crocker Art Museum at 3 p.m. Sunday, leading up to Sunday evening's concert.
"The idea was for us to come back to Davis and actually engage with a number of different people and do the sorts of outreach that we do in the community in St. Louis," said Robertson.
ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY JAMES EHNES, VIOLIN
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Information: (530) 754-2787; www.MondaviArts.org
Call The Bee'sEdward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..