The brilliant American violinist Benjamin Beilman tells us about his studies with Christian Tetzlaff, his work with London Music Masters and his world premiere performance this month of a new concerto by Edmund Finnis
Benjamin, what first made you get interested in music as a child? How did you start to play?
My introduction to the violin came through my older sister, Elizabeth. She was offered music lessons through her elementary school and elected to join her friends in the violin class. Since I was just three years old at the time (my sister five), my mom would bring me along to my sister’s private lessons and allow me to quietly play with my toy trucks and trains in the same room. Over time, I began humming the same melodies my sister was practicing around the house. This, and a wish to follow in my sister’s footsteps inspired me to ask for violin lessons when I turned five.
What has it been like to study with Christian Tetzlaff? And which other musicians, teachers and/or role models have been most important to you?
I was very fortunate to work with Ida Kavafian and Pamela Frank at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Ida was, and continues to be, a moral and musical compass. When I entered Curtis, my brain was flooded with new information from my musical studies classes, orchestra rehearsals, and chamber music readings. I tried to integrate these new ideas into my own musical identity and when they didn’t fully meld, Ida was there to steer me back on track.
When I graduated from Curtis, I still felt the need for further education so I auditioned for the Kronberg Academy to study with Christian Tetzlaff. Christian’s schedule is jam-packed with concerts in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. so only a handful of my private lessons actually took place in Kronberg. Every few weeks, I would meet him in Munich or New York or London and we’d squeeze in a long lesson in between his rehearsals with the orchestra.
His philosophy was an extension of the musical tenets that Curtis instilled with an extra emphasis on color and courage to break through traditions. Private lessons with him were priceless but I learned just as much by watching him rehearse and perform with an orchestra. There are so many tiny and mundane details that can drastically affect an orchestra or conductor’s opinion of you and thus totally change the outcome of the performance. For instance, as a soloist, how long before the rehearsal starts should you walk on stage? Should you hold back in volume, creativity, or flexibility during rehearsals in order to create something special in the performance or just play exactly the same every time? How much and when can you ask an orchestra to play differently? Seeing Christian in action was the best education for me.
Please tell us about your event with London Music Masters in December?
London Music Masters (LMM) is an organization that, in addition to providing music education to primary schools in inner-city London, mentors and supports professional violinists in the early stages of a their career. As part of the award from LMM, I have been granted the opportunity to collaborate with composer Edmund Finnis on a new violin concerto. On 10 December, the London Contemporary Orchestra, conductor Hugh Brunt, and I will premiere Edmund Finnis’ Shades Lengthen at St John at Hackney Church in London.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what the piece means or conveys since I haven’t met with the rest of the ensemble yet, but I can tell you from my discussions with Edmund that this piece illustrates his fascination with abstract optical representations of music. In his words: ‘The solo violin is almost always heard distinctly in the foreground, voicing clearly articulated arcing lines of sound. Parts of these lines are often picked up by instruments in the ensemble, “shadowed” and heard again in canon or in stretched elongated forms. The ensemble also creates varied kinds of sound surfaces upon which the solo line and its shadows are cast.’
What is your violin? What qualities do you like about it?
The violin I’ve played for the last year is an instrument made by Stefan-Peter Greiner in 2002. I love this violin because it has an unusually broad spectrum of colors that are all audible even in a very large hall. Peter is very gracious and always willing to meet with players who use his instruments. I love working with him on sound adjustments because we rarely need to talk during the process- he immediately understands what needs to change. Not only is he the creator of (and therefore expert on) his violins, but he also has a sensitive ear and keen sense of what each individual performer needs.
Which highlights of your 2015-16 season are you looking forward to most?
Bringing a new piece to life is a unique and energizing event so I’m very much looking forward premiering Edmund’s work in a few weeks. Further on down the road, I’m also very excited to release my first album with Warner Classics in the spring of 2016.
We hear you like cooking! Any favourite cuisines you like to create?
I’ve only recently discovered the benefits and joys of cooking so most of my recipes are handed down to me from my mom. I think most musicians have a special affinity for cooking because it’s a relatively cheap and healthy procrastination technique. Since I often use cooking as a proxy for practising, I tend to obsess over recipes night after night until I consistently make them well.
Do you think classical music needs to be ‘saved’?
Definitely not – there’s nothing wrong with the music. Do the institutions that present it, the musicians who interpret it, and the audiences who consume it deserve to be re-examined? Absolutely.