Homelessness isn't an issue that's often associated with successful classical musicians, but the Montreal-raised violinist Karen Gomyo has been there and done that. She's had 28 addresses in her 29 years - and a couple of years ago she gave up on the idea of a permanent home altogether, opting to live in hotels wherever her engagements took her.
"Because of my travels, two years ago I decided that it might not be necessary to have a home base. It just seemed like a waste of money," she says, with just a hint of a French accent, over lemonade in a trendy New York café.
But these days she's excited about the apartment she just rented on the Upper West Side. "[Now] I realize that your home base is worth all the money it costs, even if you're not there much. Just walking into my apartment and feeling a sense of groundedness is really worth it."
For Gomyo, it's important to have something that keeps her grounded as her career takes off. She's achieved "it girl" status as a violinist. In the past year, she has performed in Calgary; Edmonton; Portland, Ore., Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Ind., and San Diego, Calif., among other cities, and she's booked solid until 2013. On March 23 and 24, she'll appear with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.
Yet her cosmopolitan life has made the concept of identity challenging for Gomyo. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a French-Canadian father, she came to Canada with her mother at the age of two, and lived in Montreal until she was 11. When she was accepted at the Juilliard School (into the prestigious studio of the late Dorothy DeLay), she and her mom decamped for New York. Today, she's trilingual - she speaks English, French and Japanese - and a Canadian citizen. She fondly remembers growing up in Quebec.
"I'm asked the question a lot," muses Gomyo. "Do I feel Japanese, or Canadian, or American? And when I think about it, I would say that because my childhood was spent in Canada, that's where I feel at home."
Yet it was in New York that her career took off. After four years at Juilliard, she beat out hundreds of other young talents in a competition to score a place on the roster of Young Concert Artists - an organization that helps young classical musicians develop their careers. At 15, she was the youngest musician YCA had ever accepted for management.
If this sounds like a tender age to start any kind of career, Gomyo was worried she was already too old. "When I was at Juilliard, Midori was already a big sensation, and then there was Sarah Chang and all these very young Asian violinists. It was sort of a fad at the time: If you weren't a professional by 15, you'd missed the boat. It was a destructive and false mentality - and it made me feel a little bit behind my peers. There were kids my age making grand debuts at Carnegie Hall, and I was still auditioning."
Today, she's grateful to Young Concert Artists for helping her career off to a solid but unpretentious start. "My first concert was in a barn," she recalls, "and my second was on a barge. I wasn't treated or presented as a prodigy. I had the opportunity to grow at my own pace."
She readily acknowledges that there's plenty she hasn't done yet, such as playing at Carnegie Hall. And she's barely begun her recording career; to date, her only disc is a Naxos recording of a violin concerto by the obscure Swedish composer Bo Linde.
"I've not been actively looking into recording," Gomyo admits. "In the last few years, I've been reluctant to put something permanent on a disc. Some other people don't take recording so seriously - but it's taken me a while to feel comfortable with the idea."
However, with the prospect of turning 30 looming on the horizon, she feels that she's turning a significant corner in her musical development. "I feel like I'm just getting started," she states with conviction. "I've been feeling more comfortable with myself, and that reflects on my playing. And the violinists I really admire most are the ones who blossomed in their 40s and 50s, such as David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein. Yes, they were fabulous in their 20s, but they really became important artists later on."
As well, she senses a change in her working relationships with the musical world. "I'm building professional relationships. This will be my third appearance with the TSO, and I've been asked back several times by orchestras in Dallas and Indianapolis. And there was a time when I was very young and the conductors seemed very old - but they're getting younger all the time! I used to feel that I needed to obey them, but now I feel that we're partners."
Karen Gomyo and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall March 23 and 24 at 8 p.m.
Special to The Globe and Mail