Articulate, friendly and lacking any obvious hint of bloodlust or affection for large, plastic sheets, violinist James Ehnes seems a world away from TV’s favorite righteous serial killer Dexter Morgan. The two professionals do have a few traits in common, however. Both are prolific, and both like to keep trophies.
“I was joking with a friend of mine that my CDs are disturbingly like Dexter’s slide box, because I’ve got them in this little sort of hidden away cabinet where I’ve got them all lined up chronologically and I can look at them and remember what I was at a certain time of my life,” Ehnes says.
A performer for most of his life, Ehnes, 36, spends little time at his home in Bradenton, Fla. Instead, he travels the world performing or acting as artistic director for the Seattle Chamber Music Society.
On Friday, Ehnes will visit The Music Center at Strathmore with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Conducted by Charles Dutoit, the evening’s program includes Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5.”
Ehnes began performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra more than 10 years ago, but his relationship with Mendelssohn is much older.
“It was certainly one of the very first major concertos I ever learned. I think I have played it since I was 9 years old,” Ehnes says.
Born in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada in 1976, Ehnes says he always has been around music. His father was the trumpet professor at Brandon’s university and regularly had professional musicians over to the house.
“I didn’t know any amateur musicians. The only musicians I knew were professionals,” Ehnes says. “It only was many years later that I realized how weird that was. For me, it was one of those standard career choices. When you’re a little kid it’s, ‘OK somebody’s a policeman, somebody’s a fireman somebody’s a teacher, somebody’s a violinist.’ And I thought, ‘Violinist — that sounds good.’”
Ehnes began taking violin lessons when he was 4 years old. In 1993, he moved to New York City to attend Juilliard.
With some 30 recordings under his belt, Ehnes attributes his time in Brandon as the reason for his zeal to get inside the studio. Recording not only is a chance to evaluate and chronicle his work, but also spread his music to more areas.
“It’s not like living in New York or London or Paris. And a lot of the great performers, I only got to know them through recordings,” Ehnes says. “So I think that I grew up with recordings having an importance in my life that someone from a different background might not quite appreciate in a different way.”
As Ehnes has evolved, so has his violin. Since the late 1990s, Ehnes has been courting and performing with the “Marsick” Stradivarius, which was made in 1715 — a bit of a stretch from his first violin.
“My first violin was worth, I think, $200. I was ... 4 and a half ... 5 years old, so $200 was an inconceivable amount of money to me,” Ehnes says.
The Stradivarius, on the other hand, is priced at six digits, and Ehnes has been working on financing, hoping to eventually purchase the instrument from The Fulton Collection.
“The owner has been very generous in terms of allowing me and my wife to buy it back from him, so that’s going to be a long process. So people say, ‘Do you own it?’ and I say, ‘Not really. The bank owns it.’ But, someday it will be mine,” Ehnes says.
The Stradivarius is, in essence, the sound of history, and Ehnes says few instruments match the quality from that period. Still, whether discussing his first violin or the instrument he currently plays, he sees the violin merely as a means to an end.
“It’s probably like, say, a doctor, who is dealing with a very, very expensive and delicate piece of medical equipment,” Ehnes says. “It has to be handled very carefully, but ultimately it is a tool for a job. Now the thing that is different about the violin is the violin, itself, is a work of art.”