Noah Bendix-Balgley: The newly appointed concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic
At 29, Noah Bendix-Blagley has become the newly appointed concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The news won’t surprise anyone who has heard the violinist. With admirable control and taste, he gives sense and beauty to every note. The construction is refined and intelligent. Nothing is overdone, the tone is superb and melodious. Bendix-Balgley attains Grumiaux’s sound and interiority, obtaining a finesse and subtlety of hue reminiscent of the great violin playing of the past.
In 2011, Bendix-Balgley was appointed Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Not what we could call a star student, the young man’s first break into the music scene was as finalist at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2009. All things come to those who wait. A couple of years later, looking back on what he has achieved, the violinist believes competitions have been very important for both his musical development and career. There was no better way to challenge himself than under pressure and on the most prestigious stages such as the Queen Elisabeth Competition. There, he made a number of contacts that led to different career opportunities later on. “I think one doesn’t have to win one of these major competitions to make a career. When you take a look at all the violinists who got to the final in my year regardless of whether they won first prize or third prize or were unranked, every single one of them is having a very successful career at this point.” Needless to say that at that level, everybody who gets there is very good and will probably be quite successful down the road. Because of the great exposure they offer and the enormous amount of work their preparation requires, competitions are a tremendous school. Bendix-Balgley says they were definitely important steps for him. Even though he is not doing competitions anymore, he never stops working and setting big challenges for himself. “That’s something I always think about, to continue that process I learned from the competitions, wherever I am, whatever I am doing professionally.”
The reasoning of your intellect doesn’t always match your gut instincts and for that reason it can be very difficult to decide between candidates in a competition or audition. For Bendix-Balgley the first qualities we should observe in a musician is a real technical mastery of the instrument and the sound. It’s through one’s sound that one shows one’s personality, one’s voice. Also, you are looking for somebody whose musicality, whose music moves you. “As a jury you want to be able to sit back and enjoy watching somebody making music”, says the violinist. “When somebody like that comes around while you are sitting on a jury, someone who makes you stop analyzing every note and detail, that’s the moment you are looking for!”
For Bendix-Balgley, preparing for an orchestra audition is somehow similar to preparing for a competition. “You aim for as much technical perfection as possible but you also need to refine and make very clear what you want to do musically, that every single phrase you have an idea of what you want to say. Then you have to test that whatever you are really doing is what you think you are doing”, continues the newly appointed concertmaster. “You have to really work to make sure that your musical ideas are getting across convincingly.” You have to practice very intensively but very intelligently as well. It’s better to make sure your practicing is focused and the work has a real goal, as the violinist reminds us.
Bendix-Balgley doesn’t feel one should prepare an audition with the idea to suit an orchestra style. “I think I am preparing in my own way of playing and try to do my best in the style that I am playing. I don’t try to show something other than who I am musically and as a violinist. If that’s a good fit for an orchestra ensemble that I will be joining, then they will like me.” In fact it wouldn’t be entirely honest to try to play in a way that isn’t natural for you. In the event that you win, the collaboration might not work so well. “I always try to present the pieces as well as I can, as interestingly as I can and in the way I believe them.” But of course later, once you join an ensemble, you have to react and adjust to the particular playing style of the ensemble.
It goes without saying that Bendix-Balgley is very exited to start working with the Berlin Philharmonic next season. “I am always struck by how active musically is the orchestra, not just a few people but the whole ensemble. That is exciting and it’s something I am looking forward to being a part of. That always impressed me a lot in addition to their technical perfection and their sound so particular to them.”
The relationship between an orchestra and its concertmaster is give and take, a real collaboration in the best sense. If somebody comes in and is not willing to adjust his own style and is not flexible, the association is not going to be successful. On the other hand, somebody who comes in and only adjusts his style but doesn’t present his own viewpoint will not be successful either. The players have to come to an understanding together, inspired by their leader. “That is part of the job as concertmaster, to set a particular style of playing for whatever piece you are playing so I will bring my instincts and my playing to the table”, assures the violinist. For him, it all starts with communication and the chamber music angle of seeing things. As a concertmaster you have to support and help people to create the exact sound, the exact articulation, you have to show a lot of what needs to be done musically. Taking the cues from the conductor, you try to convey them as well as you can to the rest of the orchestra. That’s the very challenging part of it, to be incredibly flexible and aware of what is going on in a huge ensemble. “That’s for me the real role of a concertmaster. It’s my philosophy; I try to be active and engaged in my playing. I try to get it as close as what the music is about to convey the effect and reach everybody around me.”
Bendix-Balgley doesn’t really know if there is fundamental difference between the role of a concertmaster in Europe and America. The systems are a little bit different. The fact that in Europe orchestras have multiple concertmasters who work with the orchestra sometimes makes the responsibility slightly different. In Europe you would need a bit more flexibility as concertmaster. Having studied for a few years in Europe as well as in America, the violinist is not afraid of commuting from one continent to the other. Nowadays all the styles of playing and teaching are intermingled. Bendix-Balgley judges that it’s very important for today’s students to realize that. “You can’t just learn one way and keep it for everything you play. There are a lot of different styles you have to be able to adjust to.”
Besides being concertmaster, Bendix-Balgley coaches chamber music and gives masterclasses from time to time. He loves teaching and hopes it will take up more and more space in his life. “I feel I was very lucky with the teachers and instructors I had all throughout my life and feel it’s a real responsibility to pass on some of the things that I have learn. Teaching is a real art and something that I am starting to explore so I don’t claim to be an expert but it’s very exciting to start exploring that side of music making.” The young man is also a fervent chamber music player and has performed in a number of festivals around world.
At the moment Bendix-Balgley is still playing with the Pittsburg Symphonic Orchestra. He will play a significant amount of the season in Pittsburg and will have a number of solo appearances with the orchestra. He sees the next couple of years as a transition before being full time concertmaster in Berlin. The young man says he is sad to be leaving Pittsburg where he made great musical and personal connections. But he enjoyed studying in Europe and looks forward to living and working in Berlin. “Classical music is such a part of the culture there”, says the musician. “That’s where it really comes from. It’s in the air of that history and that culture. You sort of feel you are going back to the source.”