Violinist Ehnes makes an acclaimed career from his Florida home

By Lawrence Budmen

James Ehnes will perform Barber's Violin Concerto with Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

James Ehnes never doubted for a moment that he would have a career as a soloist rather than an orchestral player.

“I grew up around a lot of musicians,” said the Canadian violinist from his home in Bradenton, Florida. “My father was a trumpet professor at Brandon (Manitoba) University. By the time I was in my teens, I was very much engaged in the solo repertoire and knew I could have a very legitimate career.

“That saved me from teenage angst.”

Ehnes will perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with conductor Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra January 11 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale and January 12 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The program also features Torque by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Barber’s score is one of the violinist’s favorite works. “It is an amazing piece, formally daring and unusual,” he said with clear enthusiasm.

The concerto, written in 1939, has become a repertoire staple in the last two decades, appealing for the rich vein of nostalgic lyricism of the first two movements. “The twentieth century was so musically politicized,” says Ehnes. “Today people realize that music does not have to follow formal guidelines. The first two movements of the Barber concerto are lyrical and engaging, and immediately form a connection with an audience.”

The brilliant fireworks of the concerto’s finale have come in for criticism from some who believe that the moto perpetuo–exciting as it is–doesn’t cohere with the more introspective style of the first two movements.

Ehnes doesn’t buy it. “I’ve never understood the criticism of the third movement. It is tremendously effective with all the elements combining for a striking conclusion. This work is wonderfully rewarding for the players.”

The violinist, who turns 35 later this month, credits his teachers for instilling him with the sense of musical adventure that has guided a successful international career, and earned him a Grammy Award and the deep respect of his colleagues.

“James is one of the most brilliant violinists I have ever seen,” wrote the conductor Oundjian in an e-mail. “He is also incredibly sensitive to what the orchestra is doing, so every performance is a real conversation.”

At the age of 8, Ehnes began studying with Canadian pedagogue Francis Chaplin who he regards as his major influence. “He was a hugely important person in my life, like a member of the family,” he recalls. “Chaplin exposed me to all kinds of music but he always allowed me freedom for exploration and experimentation.”

Ehnes found a similar openness to new artistic ideas in his studies with Sally Thomas at the Meadowmount School of Music and later at Juilliard. “She was a former top assistant to Ivan Galamian [teacher of Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman], an inheritor of a great Russian tradition. She was a remarkable woman of amazing integrity.”

As a student, the artist that Ehnes listened to the most was Itzhak Perlman. Later Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler became great heroes, as did the tragically short-lived Michael Rabin, whose recordings he prizes for the “sheer honesty and generosity” of his music making.

Ehnes is looking forward to playing the Barber concerto with his compatriot Oundjian and the Canadian ensemble. “I like to work with conductors who inspire me, like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Peter,” he said.  “I first admired Peter as a violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet. He is a fantastic musician who has made a seamless transition to conducting.”

He will perform the Barber Concerto on a 1715 Marsick Stradivarius, on loan from the David Fulton Collection, which he prizes for its refined tone. His interest in classic violins was the basis of his recording for CD and DVD “Homage” in which he encore pieces on twelve different instruments from the Fulton collection.

The violinist’s repertoire and growing discography are wide ranging, embracing seldom played pieces by Dohnanyi, Britten, Dallapiccola and Panufnik as well as the standard repertoire. “Learning new repertoire keeps me engaged and keeps an edge on my playing. Playing worthy works that are rarely heard keeps the artistic process alive. It keeps me young.”

His 2008 recording of concertos by Barber, Walton and Korngold was a Grammy award winner, and Ehnes will give the American premiere of a work by French composer Philippe Manoury with the St. Louis Symphony next season.

The more intimate world of chamber music has played an increasingly prominent role in his artistic life. For the past fifteen years Ehnes has spent his summers playing with the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and in 2012 he will become that organization’s artistic director. “This wonderful festival has an enthusiastic following and I hope to give it a more visible role in the broader artistic scene.”

Detroit Symphony principal cellist Robert deMaine, who has known Ehnes since 1988, is a frequent chamber music collaborator. “James is a classy, honest, beautiful human being and that comes through in the generous spirit of his music making,” he said. Ehnes’ latest recording showcases him leading his Seattle colleagues in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, coupled with his evergreen Violin Concerto.

Ehnes moved to Bradenton Florida in 2001 when his wife Kate, a professional dancer, became a member of Sarasota Ballet. When not engaged in music-making, Ehnes is passionate about classic cars and baseball, attending games of his favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, during their Florida spring training.

Having bought a Corvette in New York, he began tinkering with it after moving to Florida, eventually taking the car apart and rebuilding it. He later bought a 1979 Ferrari.

“Ever since I used to watch Magnum, P.I., I always wanted that model,” he laughed. “There is a real car culture in Florida. Sharing in that is a great way for me to meet and interact with people who are not in the music business.”

James Ehnes plays Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Toronto Symphony under Peter Oundjian 8 p.m. January 11 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale (954-462-0222; and 8 p.m. January 12 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. (561-832-7469;

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Wed Jan 5, 2011
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