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"Many orchestral musicians might find being on the road impossible," James Ehnes says. "But in the solo world, there's an intoxicating sense of control and a great deal of artistic freedom."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 9 years ago

Virtuoso reality

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

It’s funny. When you walk into the home of a Grammy Award winner you expect to see the Grammy on display in the front foyer.

You think you’ll see the gold gramophone on a pedestal with a small spotlight illuminating it from the ceiling.

You assume you’ll be introduced to the trophy as if it’s another occupant of the house, which of course is ridiculous, unless you’re dealing with an egomaniac, which James Ehnes is not.

Instead Ehnes, who won a 2008 Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance for the release of “Barber, Korngold, Walton: Violin Concertos Pour Violin,” keeps his ego — and his Grammy — tucked away inside the music room in his Manatee County home.

“All my music-related stuff is in there,” says the violinist, who recorded the award-winning album with the Vancouver Symphony in his native Canada five years ago. “I think it would be a bad idea psychologically to think of it as the peak of my life. I would hope there are a lot of other things to look forward to. But it’s nice when I’m practicing to have it in the corner of my eye, reminding me of past happiness.”

That, in a nutshell, is how Ehnes keeps his hubris in check.

Although he doesn’t take his accomplishments for granted, he refrains from fixating on them. At 34, his glory days have just begun.

Once regarded as a youngster in an industry ruled by veteran violin virtuosos such as Itzhak Perlman, Ehnes, a graduate of The Juilliard School, made his orchestral solo debut at age 13 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

By 25, he had won back-to-back Juno Awards and received the title Young Artist of the Year at France’s Cannes Classical Awards for his “Six Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin” by Bach.

“It’s a world that’s fascinated with young people,” Ehnes says of the classical-music industry. “At this point, I’m not even the young one anymore.”

A highly sought-after soloist, Ehnes is ranked among the world’s top violinists, having performed in more than 30 countries on five continents.

In the last six months alone, Ehnes has played in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Europe, South America, Canada and throughout the United States.

The musician estimates he spends only six to eight weeks a year at his home in Bradenton, and his 2011 tour dates show no change in that routine.

Earlier this week, Ehnes kicked off a six-city tour of Florida with the Toronto Symphony. His Jan. 10 stop was comfortably close to home — the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. From there he goes to Fort Lauderdale, then West Palm Beach, followed by Orlando and, later, Daytona Beach.

“It would be nice to have more time home,” Ehnes says. “But I realize to do that would mean spending less time performing, which I don’t want either. I guess what I’m saying is, I wish there was more time than there are days.”

Even his downtime is filled with business obligations. On this particular day — an overcast Tuesday after a holiday weekend — Ehnes is juggling back-to-back phone interviews as wife Kate, a former dancer with the Sarasota Ballet, sits quietly behind a laptop computer at the kitchen table.

The couple’s home is surprisingly lived-in thanks to a bevy of family members who live nearby and pop in often to housesit.

Ehnes, who grew up in Manitoba, Canada, purchased the two-story home on the Manatee River in 2002.

He says Bradenton is as much his home turf as is his hometown in Canada, which he left to attend Juilliard when he was still a teenager.

“In the solo world there’s this intoxicating control,” Ehnes says. “You enjoy a great deal of artistic freedom. Plus, it’s a great way to see the world.”

For the first time in 45 minutes, Ehnes’ wife perks up from her perch at the kitchen table.

She says she gave up dancing a few years ago to travel with her husband, a decision that has brought the two closer.

During a recent stop in Sydney, the couple was invited to go on a sailing trip. The experience took Kate Ehnes’ breath away.

“It was like, ‘Pinch me! Is this really happening?’” gushes the former ballerina.

Ehnes smiles. Australian sailing adventures are what he commonly refers to as “job perks.”

“We’ve had some pretty amazing non-musical experiences,” he says. “But it’s not like you can party every day on the road like you’re a rock star.”

Kate Ehnes begins to giggle.

“You never party like a rock star,” she says.

With that, her jetsetter, Grammy Award-winning husband nods his head in agreement.

On his 2008 Grammy win
“It’s flattering, like any sort of award or accolade in this business. I’m proud of the work I do and you never know when or if the industry will pick up on something.”

On meeting his idol, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy
“I was at a concert in Naples. He was playing in the evening, and I was playing in the afternoon. I’ve since gotten to know him extremely well, but there are still those pinch-me moments. As a little kid, he was like this mythical character that didn’t exist in reality. He was my superhero.”

On listening to classical music
“It takes a fair amount of concentration. We live in a multi-tasking age, where if you just sit down and listen to music, despite being an intellectual activity, it can feel lazy because you’re not doing something else at the same time.”

On living out of a suitcase
“A lot of people tend to structure their lives. This isn’t the job for that. You have to learn to roll with the punches and get your work done in a very unorthodox fashion.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]


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