Q & A: Met Opera Concertmaster Benjamin Bowman On Falling In Love With Music, Performing Opera & BalletBy David Salazar
The singers, the director, and the conductor are usually the ones to get the major spotlight in the opera world.
And yet, in many respects, they wouldn’t be doing anything if not for the people that bring the musical score (the single most important document when it comes to interpreting opera)to life. That task falls on the orchestra and among its many players, the concertmaster has a tremendous responsibility to lead the ensemble.
One of the Metropolitan Opera’s concertmasters is Benjamin Bowman. Despite being born in Illinois, Bowman grew up in Brandon, Manitoba and would go on to study at the Juilliard pre-college division and eventually Curtis Institute of Music under noted violinst Aaron Rosand.
He would go on to become an Associate Concertmaster at the Canadian Opera Company for 10 years; he was also concertmaster of the American Ballet Theater and National Ballet of Canada. And in 2017, he was named one of the concertmasters at the Metropolitan Opera.
To this point, he has also made a number of recordings and was nominated for the Grammy in 2016 for his recording wit the Artists of the royal Conservatory Ensemble.
He also recently appeared on CBC podcast “This is My Music,” in which he presented many of his favorite recordings. There is also a wonderful performance of Bowman as a teenager performing Barber’s glorious violin concerto.
OperaWire recently had a chance to talk to the violinist about his career and the differences of being in the world of opera as opposed to other musical forms of expression.
OperaWire: How did you first know you wanted to be a violinist?
Benjamin Bowman: I’m usually asked how old I was when I started instead, so I’ll answer that first. Some of my earliest memories involve the violin. Specifically, I remember hanging around and listening to my two older sisters practice. I was probably about two or three years old, thinking to myself that I really could do a good job playing those pieces if I had my own violin. So I asked for one. The early results were not good. I was displeased by the ratio of expended energy vs. tangible results. But obviously, I persevered nonetheless.
I think I’m still a musician today because I had so much music around me in my early years. My sisters played, my dad played jazz trombone, and directed the university jazz band, my mom always had something playing in the house (usually opera!).
I’m always amazed by stories of people who are the first musicians in their family, or even more by those who insisted on learning to play against their parent’s wishes. Such odds stacked against them!
For me, the violin almost literally fell into my lap, and when things were difficult I had plenty of support. I was lucky.
OW: So what were your early experiences as a violinist?
BB: Fast forward about five years, a few Suzuki books, a couple private teachers, some success on the local competition circuit. I’m now about nine-years-old. My teacher is no slouch – none other than the late Francis Chaplin, also teacher to the well-known violinist James Ehnes. Things are getting serious, and I still hate practicing. I just can’t stand it! I dread those one-hour sessions, struggling to play repertoire that is just beyond my reach. I just want to play with my friends. I whine and moan about it nearly every day to my parents. How they tolerate this behavior for so long is really remarkable. But ultimately, everyone has their breaking point.
One day, I was making my typical stink about having to practice the violin, and my parents just stopped me and said, “Fine. If you really don’t want to do it, don’t do it anymore. You can quit today if you like.”
OW: How did you react?
BB: I was a shocked. I sat quietly in my practice room that day for a long time, probably 20 minutes – a lot for a nine-year-old!. I thought about it earnestly.
This was it. This was the very moment that I realized that I was hooked for life. I think my parents knew it too, and their calculated strategy paid off. They had given me training wheels for years, suddenly popped them off. This was such a good move on their part, so liberating to me and so enriching to my relationship with music. Now, the violin was MINE! I was doing this for myself, and I loved it.
OW: How did things change for you from this point on?
BB: It’s amazing to think about this now. I worked so much more intensely after that moment, and I suddenly had a purpose in life that few kids that age have. I’ll always be grateful to my parents for this.
OW: What have been some of the great challenges that you have had to overcome throughout your career?
BB: The biggest challenge is that challenges take many forms, and continue to creep their way in, no matter what. It’s more a matter of how we cope with them as they manifest.
It takes strength and courage to achieve anything in the world, and most of that is spent on perseverance and repetition. It also takes great strength to be solitary when one just wants to be social, and this is an issue at all stages of life, not just as a student.Music, though social, is also often quite solitary.
Another real challenge for me has been to learn to keep my emotions about the music I’m playing close to my chest. A shocking revelation to a younger me would be that the collaborative nature of music is sometimes at least as important as a musical idea. I came to accept this once I realized that any particular performance of a piece is probably, hopefully, not going to be my last. Moreover, much can be gained from binding with, or yielding to another musical concept, regardless of scope.Finally, selflessness can be artful as well, and this is a tricky lesson to learn. Even harder to teach.
Being an artist is always a struggle between absolute idealism and pragmatic solutions, and eventually it fits into a groove where you become comfortable (enough) with this dichotomy.
OW: How is performing opera different as an instrumentalist from performing other kinds of music?
BB: Performing from the pit is generally a very selfless experience, in the best possible sense. It can be effervescent and utterly satisfying to be part of something so big. It’s orchestra and chamber music all wrapped into one fantastic and unpredictable bundle. But be ready for a wild ride.
I’ve played a lot of ballet and a lot of opera. I believe that to truly be good at it you must be open to and informed about whatever is happening on stage. This means exceptional preparedness and requires great flexibility and sensitivity. Specifically in opera, it also means that one must be aware of the story they are telling, and of the language being spoken, and of the staging. Every known detail only enhances the collaboration – and the personal connection to the performance.
To simply play one’s part in the pit and rely on a conductor to liaise between you and the stage is an unfortunate amateur mistake. I know this might seem obvious to some, but I believe this to be a common perception of pit musicians. In reality, the pit strives to serve, but it also is the lifeblood of the artform. The greatest opera conductors and general managers have been staunch advocates for their orchestras. After all, without them you would have people singing aimlessly on the stage.
OW: You have also worked as a concertmaster for the American Ballet Theater and National Ballet of Canada. What kind of unique skills have you acquired from performing in that artform?
BB: In my experience playing for ballet, I had to learn to play staples of the violin solo repertoire at tempi that satisfy ballet masters and choreographers (and dancers!), but create major challenges for me physically and artistically. But these are overcome by going to the studio to watch the dance, learning what it is that they’re trying to achieve, and how I can help. Then all I have to do is add my own personality to the equation and voila, a successful performance! It is really quite a fascinating process, and it stretches the imagination, making it a satisfying experience — if you’re open to it.
OW: In terms of the opera world, what skills must a violinist aspiring to work in this artform develop?
BB: With opera, flexibility is paramount. Ears and eyes have to be open all the time, knowing how this conductor might respond to a tenor singing his lungs out while he’s running across the stage with a spear (maybe trying not to stab his colleague), or how that conductor might anticipate the languid soprano in the aria that seemingly never ends. But ultimately, knowing when to take initiative and be assertive,and knowing when to accompany to the extreme.
That’s what it is with opera, that’s what is special. Accompaniment. Support. It’s a beautiful thing when it’s done well.
OW: What has your experience been as the leader of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in this regard?
BB: At the Met, it is usually done very, very well. Many musicians in the pit could probably sing along for many of the arias they accompany so skillfully. They know the nooks and crannies, they know pivotal dramatic moments. There are so many performances of the staples that they become embedded in our DNA.
OW: Last week,the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performed under Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin during his first performances in the position of music director. At the close of the opening night performance “La Traviata,” he made an unusual, but bold, decision to have the orchestra come onstage to take its bows with him. What was that experience like and how did it come about?
BB: Maestro YNS set aside a few minutes at the end of one of our last “Traviata” rehearsals to let us know of his wish to bring the whole orchestra on stage for a bow following his first performance as Music Director at the Met. Of course, we were all thrilled and honored to be included in this moment. I believe it was actually unprecedented at the Met Opera!
Just imagine an entire orchestra, with valuable instruments, exiting the pit safely, climbing the stairs and emerging in a timely fashion on the stage for a bow! It takes a bit of luck to make it all work. Of course, it was no problem, but it required a rehearsal to be sure.
OW: In your opinion, what does this say about his character and the rapport he has with the ensemble?
BB: This gesture speaks volumes about the personality we have on the podium now. Yannick is inclusive and supportive, and he’s aware of all the components that make the Met Opera so successful. We love this about him, amongst many things musical. He knows that his orchestra willingly spends its days and nights playing underground in a largely supportive role, so bringing us all up to street level for just a brief moment means more than words can express. It was a very special moment.
OW: Throughout history and especially throughout the 20th and 21st century, there have been a number of great violinists.Which ones have influenced you?
BB: Francis Chaplin (pupil of Galamian), David Zafer (pupil of Oscar Shumsky), Aaron Rosand (pupil of Efrem Zimbalist), all very different, all my cherished teachers. Chaplin taught me how to aspire, Zafer taught me how to practice, Rosand taught me how to use my voice.
Jascha Heifetz, because God. Milstein, Oistrakh, Kreisler, Szigeti, Ysaye, Szerying, Perlman, Menuhin, Yuval Yaron, at times above all. Listen to his Sibelius Op. 78 and 81 – stunningly individual.
Really, my point is that there’s ample inspiration, usually the older the better. Most importantly, I would encourage any young violinists to explore old recordings, and videos.These are our masters, and their gifts are our gifts. They might not get as many hits on YouTube or Instagram with their old fuzzy black and white videos, but they are invaluable resources from which to draw inspiration and to grow as violinists and musicians. It’s all out there for the taking these days, if you’re looking. Listen to them and learn, humbly!