Q&A: Violinist Benjamin Beilman

BY Mike Melia  March 7, 2012 at 4:09 PM EDT

Benjamin Beilman is making a name for himself as a young violin phenom, winning several major prizes, including first prize at 2010 Montreal International Musical Competition. In February, the 21-year-old violinist performed at the Young Concert Artists Series recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C. Next week, he will make his New York City recital debut at Merkin Concert Hall.

The Philadelphia Inquirer called Beilman “poised and monstrously talented,” while the Washington Post described his playing as giving the “illusion of tossed-off ease…mightily impressive.”

Art Beat recently talked to Beilman about his young career:

How did you get your start playing the violin? How did it all begin for you?

Benjamin Beilman: I started taking violin lessons when I was 5 years old, but I think my affiliation with the violin started before that. I have one older sister who is two years older than me, and she started when she was 5 through her kindergarten. She had a bunch of friends taking violin lessons. I think it was the Suzuki program, and so my mom would take me to all of her lessons and we’re just kind of sitting there on the floor. I’d play with my trains or whatever and I guess over time I picked up a lot of the songs that my sister was working on. I hummed them around the house. One day I asked if I could start playing violin as well, because you know at that age you want to be just like your older sibling.

When did you decide to really dedicate yourself to music?

Benjamin BeilmanBenjamin Beilman: Thanks to my mom, I had been a diligent practicer I think for the first five, six years of my life, not a lot of practice a day, just as long as it was regular. I really made the switch to deciding that this is what I wanted to do with my life when I was maybe about 11 or 12 years old. At that point I just kind I looked around at my friends and I saw that I had something very, very unique that not a lot of them had. I liked doing it, I was good at it and I really thought I could make it my life goal.

When you were recently at the Kennedy Center it was a unique evening in that you rarely have performer playing an original work with the composer in the house, and it’s even rarer that both of those people are under 30 years old. What was that experience like?

Benjamin Beilman: You are totally right. There are definitely pluses and negative aspects of that. I feel very lucky that Chris Rogerson, the composer of that work, is a very close friend of mine. We overlapped at school at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for about three or four years. It turned once we got to know each other we found out that we were both University of Michigan football fans. So even completely outside of music we’d hang out, we’d watch the Wolverines play and have meals and stuff. But then working with him one-on-one on his music was a completely different experience. He completely slips into a different person, whereas it’s a different side of his brain, and it’s so genius in my opinion. There is definitely that obligation that you feel when a composer is in the audience and especially when you are premiering a piece. There is something very, very huge about giving birth to a piece to the public. No one had ever heard this piece before, and it is your job to play it as effectively and accurately as possible. There is no tradition to go on, there are no past CDs, notes to take from, or past performers or performances. It’s all up to you.

A lot of listeners take in classical music through CDs or through the radio, and that can be both an emotional and intellectual experience, but seeing you reminded me of how much physical movement and energy and muscle memory comes into the performance of the pieces that you’ve done. Can you speak to that a little bit, outside of the intellectual and emotional challenges of classical music, of the real physical challenges that exist?

Benjamin Beilman: Yeah, as you said, performing is very athletic. It’s a huge feat physically. The stage lights that are beating down on you and heating up the stage. I just saw a concert in South Carolina and the humidity there adds an extra factor to it. I very often find myself sweating quite a bit. You are moving both arms very fast for very extended periods of time. A full recital is close two hours long, and that’s a lot of motion in that two hour period. I guess the idea behind all my lessons recently have been kind of an economy of motion, making sure that you’re keeping all the energy that you can to put toward musical and emotional things without having to take too much to do technical aspects of performing.

Speaking of technical, some traditions of classical go back centuries and some have changed, some have not changed, but I was struck with you using an IPad to move your own sheet music. Do you see that as something that will continue in the future, as younger musicians like yourself have grown up with newer technologies?

Benjamin Beilman: I am sure they will only continue to grow in popularity, especially among performers of my generation. I think it’s really cool. It’s incredible being able to carry countless scores, piano parts, solo violin parts, on this one device. It’s so great because I can take it with me on my carry-on on flights. You don’t have to worry about theses pounds and pounds of music. The most important thing is as long as the IPad isn’t the focus of the performance, obviously. You see these stories and interviews of, Oh my gosh, they used an IPad to conduct or they used an IPad when they were playing the piano and isn’t that crazy. But as long as it’s just there to help the performer. I used the IPad for Chris’ piece because there were some really tricky page turns. I have a foot pedal on the floor where while I am playing I can just kind of move my foot very quickly and turn the page so I’m not missing anything.

Is there a particular song or piece that you go back to and play, just sort of for your own personal enjoyment?

Benjamin Beilman: Yeah, I consider the Sibelius violni concerto to be very close to my heart. I’ve worked on it probably more than any other piece in my entire violin playing history, and it’s a lot of fun to pick up the piece either for public performance or maybe for an audition. Each time I come back to it I see it’s a great benchmark of where I am. I’m hopefully more subtle and more nuanced and more mature. I had my wisdom teeth taken out a few years ago and that was the first piece that I wanted to play after I had to put my violin down. Obviously you can’t play while you’ve just had surgery, so I had to take a couple of days off, and that was definitely the thing I most looked forward to.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Benjamin Beilman: Thank you.

Here is Beilman’s competition winning performance during the final round of the Montreal International Musical Competition: