Benjamin Beilman: Music is the best way to understand yourself
The first time I met Benjamin Beilman was on a bus during the Montreal International Music Competition. I had my violin on my back, he had his and this common citizenship was enough for us to introduce ourselves. I remember how awfully sure of him he looked, bold, casual and summery with his sunglasses and his grey T-Shirt.
More than three years later – the morning after his Carnegie Hall debut in New York – he recalled the time of the competition: “there was that obsession, I was thinking: this is my time, I want to win a major international competition, I am ready, I am worth it, I have something special to say, I am going to do this, I want this!” There is actually something very interesting about the young man’s determination. He wants to succeed in a sincere childish way I would say, just like a child who wants something for Christmas, who asks Santa Claus everyday, think about it all the time and tries to behave well. “I think you are actually spot-on”, confirms the violinist. I heard Benjamin Beilman play a lot: in Montreal, in Paris, in New York. I heard him perform at an international competition, in a small bistro, at his CD launch and even play the full Paganini caprices in mid-summer stifling heat. I never saw anybody else try his best on stage as much as he does. I also never saw anybody change and learn as much as he did in the past years: from one performance to another he could sound completely different. By his sound and his expression, he ranks among the greatest. By his eagerness to learn, by his struggles to make the best of everything, he is one of us, human.
“I am sorry I feel like I am not giving a good article but essential what we are talking about [finding who you are as a violinist, as an artist, as a person] is what I am trying to discover myself too,” worries Benjamin after 30 minutes of interview. “I feel horrible admitting it because I think if you get on stage you should have it very clear in your head: this is why you should be listening to me, this is why you should come to my concert.” In fact, I did catch the violinist in a time of struggles about figuring out who he really is. You play great music, you occasionally have lessons and you have instructions on how to play but what is your personal thing, what makes you different as an artist? There is an incredible amount of exceptionally talented people but what is the little something that you need to say? “That’s a very hard thing to look in the mirror and say why am I different, what’s great about me. I can ask friends of mine, their answers might be helping and refreshing to hear but trying to figure that out for yourself is the hardest step. I don’t know what will help me to find it. I think it’s just time and experience. You don’t really become the person you are supposed to be until you die. You are not a fully formed person until it’s the end. ” Fortunately, to find himself, the young man has music. “All this has been said before – and that’s the beauty of music – but music is an examination of who we are as humans throughout time. To me, classical music is the most refined language, the most refined palette, and it’s the most concentrated version of conveying a message, the best expression. It is also the best way to understand yourself.” Here Beilman quotes Mitsuko Uchida who once said that it frightens her how much Schubert knows about her as a person. That’s what is so fantastic about playing music: somebody – the composer – sometimes understands who you are at the very core of your being without having met you. That links to the fact that everyone goes through the same things, no matter the time, no matter the place.
Besides trying to understand and find himself, Beilman says he is struggling to combine and reconcile what he has been brought-up with until he was 18 or 19 – meaning a juicy romantic old school and great tradition of sound – with a new way of thinking of music as a shocking art form. I couldn’t help but think of his late mentor, the sublime violinist Christian Tetzlaff who might have influenced Beilman’s preoccupations of the moment. In fact, the German violinist made a striking statement in an article published in The New Yorker. “Beauty is the enemy of the expression!” he says. The way I understand it is that one shouldn’t take expression for granted because of beauty and that complacency in beauty could damage genuine expression. Beilman comments: “I don’t think Christian [Tetzlaff] has any problem with beauty of sound, he has an extremely gorgeous sound. I think he is just someone who is in favor that dolce beautiful sound shouldn’t be the constant. Moreover, composers aren’t obviously confining the musician to one sound throughout their pieces.” Just as with the matter of embracing different kinds of sounds, Beilman said he would be a bad musician if he preferred one kind of music or a composer to another. “I think you have to have a love for everything that you play. Trying to choose your favorite work or composer is like trying to choose who is your favorite child, you can have special connections with one but you cannot choose.”
About his Carnegie Hall debut, the violinist feels happy for the most part. “I wasn’t too uptight about trying to make things right and perfect and everything. I felt like I was confortable enough to portray the characters and emotions I wanted.” And about the parts he was not so happy about, he believes that playing the violin “is a process. There are times when you need to inject something as a result. Sometimes we add things, sometimes we subtract things and hopefully in the end it all sounds better, gets better.” Beilman was very lucky to have a friend with him on stage, the pianist with whom he played for the past five years, Yekwon Sunwoo. They met at Curtis and since then have become very close friends. “It’s fun to go to all these cities around the world whether they are glamorous cities or little tinny towns and learn. I mean we teach each other. We are both very much coaching each other in our rehearsal. We have side-by-side paths and we are growing-up in music together.” It seems like the young man has always been beautifully surrounded. He nods: “all the teachers and people that I worked with had such a genuine love for the music that it would have been hard not to do what they did too!”
Published on Violinist.com on December 2013: