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Café Concert: James Ehnes

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VIDEO: James Ehnes Plays Bach's Third Partita

How does he do it? That’s the inside joke, the company line, the way many deal with a normal guy like James Ehnes doing abnormal things like performing concertos with major orchestras, starting a string quartet, the Ehnes Quartet, and taking over this summer as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

And he proposed to his now-wife at a New York Philharmonic concert several years ago while TV cameras rolled.

How does he do it? "A lot of times there’s a very distinct difference between someone’s professional life and their personal life,” Ehnes, 36, told host Naomi Lewin. “When we get up on stage as musicians there’s a certain performance aspect of that. Off the stage, apart from a few serious divas that seem to affect the perception for everyone, musicians are such regular people.”

The Seattle Times recently wrote that Ehnes "came off as such a regular, affable fellow that his pyrotechnic talents on the violin were almost shocking in their wizardry."

Born in Manitoba, Canada, the son of a trumpet professor and dance school director, Ehnes began playing violin at age four. By the time he graduated from the Juilliard School in 1997 he had already released his first recording, of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, for Telarc. Another two dozen recordings followed, including his latest, a collection of violin and piano pieces by Bartok.

One of Ehnes’s calling cards is the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the most popular violin concerto around after the Brahms Concerto. Ehnes notes that while it was considered unplayable after it was written in 1878, today it’s a “rite of passage” for every violinist, and he’s played it since age 13.

"Sometimes one’s interpretation of a piece develops but often for me, the way I feel about a piece stays the same but I’m different and so my interpretation is different,” he explained. “It’s a funny thing. I can listen to old tapes of myself. I think, ‘that’s me, but that’s who I used to be.’ It’s like an old photograph. Even though I feel the same way about a piece, my way of getting it out is going to be fundamentally different.”

Ehnes performs the Tchaikovsky with the New York Philharmonic on Monday night in Central Park, followed by an appearance in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on Tuesday (WQXR will broadcast that concert on Thursday).

The parks concerts hold a special place in Ehnes's life: he proposed to his then-girlfriend Kate following his 2003 Central Park performance. They married the next summer and recently had their first child. Ehnes recalled the moment:

“I did some ring shopping that day. I called my friend at the Philharmonic and said, ‘I have this idea that I want to propose to Kate tonight.’ I hadn’t seen the setup yet. He said, ‘oh yeah, there’s this spot off the side of the stage under some trees. It’s very beautiful. You get a view of the skyline to the south.’”

He popped the question just as a camera from NY1 was rolling nearby, and the couple came home to see the moment during the newscasts every half hour. “It was certainly a special night. It’s a nice sense of déjà vu to be back in the park with the Philharmonic in the very same piece.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Text & production: Brian Wise