The first time violinist James Ehnes visited Baltimore, it was to catch a game at Camden Yards. Don't hold it against him, but he was rooting for the Red Sox. He's been a fan since he was a kid, when his father would drive him to Boston from their home in Canada. "The highlight was going to Fenway Park," Ehnes says.
This week, he'll try for a musical homer with his 1715 Stradivarius, playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
At his BSO debut in 2007, performing a Mozart concerto, Ehnes left quite an impression with his refined technique, sweet tone and elegant phrase-making. Since then, he has won a Grammy for an exquisite recording of concertos by Korngold, Walton and Barber, and has continued to solidify his reputation as one of the most rewarding fiddlers around.
"Jimmy's so great," says BSO music director Marin Alsop. "He can play anything."
She and the violinist first collaborated when he was 12 and she was conducting the Long Island Philharmonic. "She was really encouraging to me, and that meant a lot at that age," Ehnes says.
They've shared a stage several times since, in this country and in Europe.
Ehnes was born in 1976 to American parents in Brandon, Manitoba, where he expressed an early interest in music.
"Apparently, I was 2 1/2 or 3 when I pointed to a picture of a violin and said I wanted it," he says. "I knew the sound from recordings my parents played, and I probably saw Itzhak Perlman on 'Sesame Street.' " He started lessons a month before his fifth birthday.
Ehnes went on to study at New York's Juilliard School and win several awards, including an Avery Fisher Career Grant.
His style, rich in expressive qualities that recall violinists from a bygone era, always seems thoroughly genuine.
"You come across players who, after they get success, it becomes more about the characteristics of their playing," Ehnes says. "People go to hear someone because he throws his head this way, or stamps his foot, or plays real soft at this point. Technique and musicality cannot exist independently."
Both aspects are put to the test in the Tchaikovsky concerto, which he doesn't tire of performing.
"It's fantastic music, very open and honest," Ehnes says. "Although I play it a lot, I always try to remember that there are people in the audience who have never heard it live, or at all. I can still remember how exciting it was for me when I first heard it, and then I get excited about it all over again."
Ehnes continually expands on a repertoire that already stretches from Bach to Kernis and Corigliano; he'll be playing the rarely programmed concertos by Strauss and Britten this season.
"You think you can get your hands around the violin repertoire," he says, "but it's so big that you never, ever can."
His latest recording (he's made more than 20) finds him revisiting the Paganini Caprices, a major component of the violin canon, which he first committed to disc in 1996. Although these are virtuoso pieces, Ehnes doesn't approach them as mere display vehicles. "If all you do is focus on pushing your technical limits, there's not a lot of music coming out," he says.
When he's not in the studio or on the road, Ehnes enjoys getting back to Bradenton, Fla., where he and his wife, a ballet teacher, have had a home for several years.
"I used to live in New York, but I don't think I'm a big city person," he says. "It's great to go home even for two days, where it is calm, easy - and very warm."
If you go
The BSO performs at 8 p.m. today at the Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $28 to $90. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.