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A phoenix rises from the ashes

After the 2005 fire that left him scarred, David Ewart celebrates life

Posted: December 16, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 16, 2012 2:00 a.m.

David Ewart said the replacement for his 1765 Januarius Gagliano violin that was destroyed in the 2005 fire (pictured in a photo behind Ewart) "found me."

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Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, professional violinist David Ewart, 55, has emerged from the disastrous 2005 fire that claimed his home, his 1781 Januarius Gagliano violin and all his possessions, including several valuable violin bows.

The fire, widely reported in media throughout the Southland, including The Signal, is believed to have started from candles left burning after Ewart’s annual Christmas party.

The elaborate party was a tradition for Ewart who invited his neighbors and friends. It included pony rides, a petting zoo and Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The fire

At the time of the fire Ewart had been divorced for several years, but he had shared custody of his three children.

Ewart, his children, Michael, then 15, Jonathan, then 13 and Heather, then 9, as well as his parents, Hugh and Esther Ewart, of Portland, Ore., were asleep when the fire broke out just before dawn in his Valencia Hills home on Dec. 20, 2005.

By the time the fire was detected, it was too late for some of the family to escape safely.

Ewart’s mother, son Jonathan and daughter Heather were able to flee the burning home without injury.

However, Ewart, his son Michael and his father Hugh, all suffered burns and were treated at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks.

Ewart was burned over 32 percent of his body, including his hands, arms, back, chest and face.

His son was the most seriously injured with burns over 41 percent of his body.

Ewart’s father, 81, a retired concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony in Portland, had facial burns and a broken nose from falling.

In a coma

“When we left the burning house, we were still walking,” said Ewart.

But as soon as they arrived at the Grossman Burn Center, they were intentionally put into comas.

“They put us in comas deliberately because the pain was so severe,” said Ewart.

Ewart found out later that initial reports about the three Ewarts were not good.

“It was very scary to everyone when they heard that we might not live,” he said. “I stayed in the coma the longest and by the time I woke up they had made great progress with Michael, and my father was out of harm’s way.”

Of the three, Ewart was the last to emerge from the coma.

“I didn’t have to endure those three weeks of worrying if they would be okay because I was asleep,” he said.

Waking up

“I was burned so badly in my lungs, throat, esophagus; that’s why they thought they were going to lose me,” said Ewart.

Ewart woke from his extended coma one day when Dr. Richard Grossman came to his bedside to tell him that he would live.

“His first words to me had a big impact. When I came to consciousness, these compassionate gray blue eyes were looking at me,” Ewart said. “Dr. Grossman got down on his knees so he could look directly into my eyes and said ‘I’m Dr. Grossman and this is my hospital. I am here to tell you that your father is delivered and that your son is going to be delivered in days and you too are going to make it.”

Ewart, a deeply spiritual man, said he felt those words were “a communication from heaven.”

“These first words of comfort coming from this great doctor were very meaningful to me,” said Ewart.

Ewart visits the Grossman Burn Center every year on the anniversary of the fire.

As Ewart healed from his injuries, it was unknown if he would ever play the violin again.

His son Michael was told he would never play soccer again and never swim again.

The Ewarts proved doctors wrong in all instances.

Musical roots

Ewart was born in Portland, Ore. His musical roots run deep.

His father, also a violinist, studied at the Juilliard School of Music before joining the Oregon Symphony in Portland.

His grandfather James Ewart was a concert violinist from Glasgow, Scotland, who came to the United States. Both his grandfather and his grandmother, Margaret, a pianist, played in theaters in Chicago.

James Ewart eventually made his way to Portland to work with the Oregon Symphony.

His destiny

Ewart has played the violin as long as he can remember.

“As a kid, I resented practicing,” he said. “I wanted to be out on the street playing with my buddies.”

But at age 12 Ewart realized that his destiny was tied to the violin.

“I knew it was too special of a gift not to pursue,” he said.

That decision made him the third generation in his family to become a professional violinist.

In addition to his violinist father, Ewart’s sister, Barbara, of Portland, plays the cello, and his brother, Duncan, of Saugus, also plays the violin.

Together, they formed the Ewart string quartet.

Education

Ewart attended Mt. Hood Community College in Portland where he practiced his art learning a variety of music genres and styles.

After six years, the dean of Mt. Hood called Ewart into his office and recommended the young man move on to a four-year school.

“I was having so much fun at the school I didn’t want to leave,” he said.

He took the dean’s advice and attended Portland State University where he earned degrees in music education and music performance. He also received a K-12 teaching certification.

“I never taught because I continued on to graduate school,” he said.

Ewart eventually received a master’s degree at the University of Arizona and was two-thirds of the way to his doctorate before he found a job with an orchestra.

Finding an orchestra

Ewart’s arduous effort auditioning for orchestras took him throughout the United States, as well as Australia and Canada. It took Ewart years to find the right fit.

“I had been auditioning since I was 16,” he said. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Ewart said at the time he was seeking a chair in an orchestra it was estimated that a symphonic musician would take 18 auditions before landing a job.

For Ewart, it took more than 20 auditions. In the meantime, he pieced together a living playing for operas, theater and ballets, as well as a stint in an Italian restaurant.

“I was very, very well fed there,” he said.

His first full-time job was with the Oregon Symphony as a full-time substitute.

“I really wanted to be a part of that orchestra because I loved going to work with my dad and working with all the people that I had grown up knowing since I was little,” he said. “But I couldn’t win the audition there.”

In 1986, Ewart became the assistant concertmaster for the Florida Symphony in Orlando, Fla. He worked there for five years.

“It was a great place to be, I was near Disney World and it gave me a chance to connect to Hollywood,” he said. “Hollywood had been a dream of mine since I was able to tie my shoes.”

Hollywood

Ewart said becoming a Hollywood studio musician has a great allure.

“It was always in my dreams but I never thought it would be attainable,” he said. “Ironically, being in Florida, which is almost as far away as you can be physically from Hollywood turned out to be much closer than I realized,” he said.

Ewart met representatives of the musicians union when they came to Florida to educate area musicians about the union.

His networking with the musicians union became his ticket to working as a Hollywood studio musician.

Professional career

Ewart’s career has spanned both symphonic and commercial arenas. He has worked as a Hollywood studio session musician on numerous films including “Titanic,” “Amistad,” “Schindler’s List” and “Cars.”

“It’s a very sought after career by every musician on the planet,” he said. “When you’re working in the studio, you find that you are surrounded by musicians from Moscow, London or Paris or conservatories renown the world over.”

Ewart said the one thing the studio musicians have in common is the ability to be versatile.

He credits his versatility to his years learning his craft as a young man in Portland.

“I was lucky that I spent my formative years in music in junior college where I was cutting my teeth on jazz and orchestral, as well as performing as a soloist, while also learning keyboard harmony and a little bit about composition and form and style,” he said. “I played in a bluegrass band, because that what kids did, and played in the coffee houses at night.”

Moving to California

After his orchestra went on strike in Florida, Ewart was encouraged by his Hollywood connections to move to the West Coast.

At first he resisted, but he soon realized that his family was all on the West Coast and his brother lived in the Los Angeles area.

His first Hollywood jobs were with Harry Connick Jr. and on the 1990 film “The Russia House.”

He made the move to California in 1990.

He lists among his memorable movie jobs the work he did for “Jurassic Park.”

“It’s fun to play these big epic adventures and hear your music when you’re in an elevator or on a theme park ride,” he said.

In his more than 20-year Hollywood career, Ewart estimates he may have worked on as many as 800 films.

In addition, to his film work, Ewart also played 15 years in the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

After the fire

Ewart spent months in physical therapy trying to regain the use of his hands.

He also spent months relearning to play the violin.

“I think I play even better now than before the fire because I had to basically start over and relearn how to play,” he said.

“It took six months before I could go back to play the violin,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t play the violin. I play every day. It’s like breathing.”

Outpouring of help

Ewart said he was “overwhelmed” with the amount of help he received from the community.

“Our wonderful community of Santa Clarita always responds to one of its own in need,” Ewart said.

He described the people who served as his butlers, chauffeurs and put the vitamin E cream on his back as “angels.”

“They were bringing meals to where the kids were, where there was need of TLC, the community was amazing in that way,” he said. “The community as a whole showered us with so much grace and love.”

The violins

Ewart’s rare and valuable 1765 Januarius Gagliano violin was among the items lost in the fire.

The Italian violin had been handcrafted by a master violin maker in Naples, Italy.

“My violin was worth about the same as the house that burned down,” Ewart said. “It was a very solid cousin of a Stradivarius violin, it sounded as good as a Stradivarius. When you play a good violin you play better.”

Ewart said his annual Christmas party usually ended with him playing the violin and guests joining in to sing Christmas carols.

“I will always be grateful that I played my good violin the night that we almost lost our lives, because it did lose its life,” he said.

The day after the fire Ewart’s brother Duncan stopped by the house to take photos of the rubble.

“There was still smoke rising and the house was just several feet of ash,” Ewart said. “He found the engraved brass plate from my violin. It was all that had survived.”

The violin was insured and Ewart received a monetary settlement.

However, he was busy trying to recover from his injuries and put his life back together. Replacing the violin was the furthest thing from his mind, he said.

“But a violin found me,” he said. “It sounded like the violin that I had lost.”

The violin was a 1781 Ferdinand Gagliano.

“It had the same name, but not the same first name. I thought it had to be the original violin maker’s son,” he said. “But I found that it wasn’t.”

After much research he learned that the violin bore the name of the master violin maker’s nephew.

“I said, that’s impossible because he is not considered to be as good as the master of the violin I had lost and they sounded identical,” he said.

Further research found that the nephew had gone to work for his uncle and Ewart believes that the master might have had a hand in making the violin that carries the name of the nephew.

“It was obviously made under the tutelage of the master, and possibly made by the master and finished by the student,” he said. “Talk about a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Regrets

Ewart’s only regret he said is not understanding how the fire impacted the lives of his children.

Seven years have passed since the fire. Michael is 22, Jonathan is 20 and Heather is 17.

“I felt so badly for what my children had to experience,” he said. “I missed the opportunity to put my arms around my kids and tell them how deeply, deeply sorry I was that they had to go through this.”

‘Phoenix’ David

Ewart today is back at work making beautiful music and again hosts his annual Christmas party.

His home, a modern edifice with large windows and open and airy feel took Ewart three and a half years to build.

“I’m an artist and a perfectionist,” he said.

Ewart still can’t believe that Santa Clarita Concrete gave him the foundation on which to rebuilt his house.

“Keith and Wayne Crawford are two of the best people I’ve ever known,” he said. “What they did was echoed by so many people. People came and did things and I waited for the bill but the bill never came.”

In addition to rebuilding his home and his life Ewart continues to give back.

He recently hosted a fundraiser for the Santa Clarita Master Chorale at his house.

Ewart has always been active in the SCV community, for many years he coached youth sports and served on the board of William S. Hart softball and baseball.

He visits prisons to “bring light to dark places” and continues to give back when people ask.

“The Phoenix David goes all over the Americas and gives recitals,’ he said.

He also travels to perform in orchestras that invite him.

“I’ve played in orchestras you’ve never heard of,” he said.

Ewart also continues to host his annual Christmas parties, as well.

Ripples

“I want to thank this community for being who they are and embracing our need at the point it was greatly acute and showing their true colors,” he said. “If I ever thought this wasn’t home it was erased by the people and what they did for us.”

Ewart knows that the fire and its aftermath has affected him in ways he never expected.

“Everything we do is not in a vacuum, everything we do is seen by a power greater than us,” he said. “The one lesson that the fire taught me is that I had no idea how much I affected the people in the community I lived. I recognized since the fire that every breath I take and every action I’m engaged in since the fire is rippling out in so many ways, you can’t always fully comprehend or analyze it, but it makes me realize that everything we do can have a positive or a negative effect on other people.”

mbuttelman@signalscv.com

661-287-5590

 

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