Music

A Prairie boy meets Paganini

A Canadian violin virtuoso makes his recording debut

ELISSA POOLE July 1 1996
Music

A Prairie boy meets Paganini

A Canadian violin virtuoso makes his recording debut

ELISSA POOLE July 1 1996

A Prairie boy meets Paganini

Music

A Canadian violin virtuoso makes his recording debut

More than six feet tall, broad-shouldered and good-looking, James Ehnes hardly fits the popular stereotype of a former child prodigy. Fond of Ferraris and of playing baseball and basketball (“and every other sport that could damage his fingers,” his manager, Walter Homburger, wryly notes), the 20-year-old violinist from Brandon, Man., has the fresh complexion and easy smile of someone at home on the Prairies.

But Ehnes—once described by renowned American violinist (and former Jascha Heifetz protégé) Erik Friedmann as “a talent that comes around once in 100 years”—happens to be equally at home on the stages of some of the world’s great concert halls.

As he sipped a Coke in a Toronto coffee shop recently,

Ehnes seemed pleasantly unpretentious—a quality that stands out in his performances.

Critics have repeatedly observed that, despite his extraordinary virtuosity, Ehnes puts the music ahead of the spectacle. “I’m not going to gear my playing towards the market,” Ehnes says, insisting that his own personal stamp is less important to him than deciphering the puzzle of what the composer really wrote. For his first CD, Paganini: 24 Caprices—on the Clevelandbased Telare label, with which he has just signed an exclusive, five-year recording contract—Ehnes chose music he has been deciphering for more than a decade. Asked during an appearance on a Winnipeg television show when he was 9 what his favorite music was, Ehnes replied that he liked “fast playing.” His questioner introduced him afterward to Itzhak Perlman’s recording of Paganini’s Caprices, and Ehnes has been playing those fiendishly difficult pieces ever since.

Ehnes comes by his artistic leanings naturally. His mother is a former dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and his father teaches trumpet at Brandon University. (His 14-year-old sister likes to sing and play the piano, as well as dance and write.) He got his first violin when he was 5 and never looked back, studying with the late Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin and later with Sally Thomas at the famed Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York. Competitions have played an important role in getting Ehnes noticed, and when he was young they provided the only opportunities he had to perform. He looks back with amazement at the difficulty of some of the music he was playing then. “But as a kid,” he says, “I never thought about whether something was hard or easy, I just played it.”

His first big win was at the age of 11, when he won the Grand Prize in Strings at the Canadian Music Competition. More recently, in 1993, he won CBC Radio’s 27th National Competition for Young Performers. Neil Crory, CBC’s co-ordinating producer for the competition, remembers that Ehnes’s Winnipeg audition was so exciting that “the jury literally had to sit on their hands to keep from applauding.”

Ironically, Ehnes’s biggest prize to date did not arise from a competition at all, but came out of the blue with the presentation last year of the first $25,000 Ivan Galamian Award by the Meadowmount School. Another crucial award came in 1994: a three-year loan of the Canada Council’s 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius violin. As the term of that loan draws to a close, Ehnes is busily shopping around for another instrument. It is not something he will be buying on his own, however, since even a bow can cost upwards of $80,000. “We’re hoping for an angel,” says his manager.

More specifically, Ehnes is S hoping that someone will buy an instrument as an investment g and let him use it. He notes that §5 a Stradivarius bought in 1970 at g $100,000 and worth $1 million by 1985 would be valued at close to $2.5 million today. “It’s a great investment, and there are still wonderful instruments out there at good prices,” says Ehnes, adding that nothing increases their value like being played by a good violinist.

A self-described “classical music nerd,” Ehnes concedes that he has never bought a single rock ’n’ roll recording. But he and his roommate in New York City, where Ehnes is working on a bachelor’s degree in music at the Juilliard School, share a collection of approximately 800 classical CDs. “The real learning doesn’t happen at the instrument,” he says, and listening to other musicians is one way the learning goes on when his fingers are still. Even so, he practises a minimum of two hours a day, and often plays all day long, sometimes spending as much time at the piano as he does at his violin.

Rather than rushing his career, Ehnes is taking one step at a time, continuing at the Juilliard (where he is often in trouble for his frequent absences to play concerts), and adding to an already impressive repertoire of concertos. Next year, he is scheduled to play 10 different concertos, from Vivaldi to Shostakovich, bringing the number he has performed in public to 25. He has another 15 at his fingertips, ready to go.

“It’s a weird way to live,” Ehnes says, referring to a performing schedule that takes him all over the world, including concerts in Berlin and St. Petersburg last year, an upcoming date in Hong Kong and a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in August. “Sometimes it’s lonely, but I’m a great tourist,” he says. “I walk everywhere and see everything.”

Ehnes’s schedule does not often permit him to be a tourist away from the job, but this spring he took a rare two weeks off to drive across the United States with his older brother, who just graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. They were not, however, driving a Ferrari. That will have to wait until Ehnes has found a way of securing that other expensive Italian import, a Stradivarius.

ELISSA POOLE