When the Georgia Straight reaches Benjamin Beilman at home in New York City, the first thing he does is put his instrument down carefully. Extremely carefully: after all, it’s not every 29-year-old who gets to practise on a 1709 Stradivarius.
Beilman is currently in possession of the “Engleman” Strad, an exceptional example of an iconic builder’s work. The honour of playing such a fabled instrument is not lost on him, even if it’s only on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. “Yesterday I just had it polished, so it’s looking particularly pristine—and very, very beautiful,” he reports fondly.
But even a violin that’s worth many times more than the average Vancouver home isn’t the reason why Beilman is attracting attention worldwide. He has an impeccable sound, of course, and takes an impassioned approach to performance that some critics even consider slightly violent, although forceful is perhaps a more appropriate term. But no matter how virtuosic he’s asked to be, he always displays deep humanity in his interpretations—and he’s not unhappy to be told that a sense of singing runs through all of his work.
“Yeah!” he says enthusiastically. “I would definitely agree with that. Actually, I sang in a boys’ choir between the age of six or seven until I was 12—until my voice changed, essentially—and every once in a while I’ll still sing in choirs. So I do think there is very much a grounding in breath and everything like that. The violin is most tied to the human voice; it has more of a soprano-type feeling. So the bow is the breath, and the notes and the range are roughly the same as the human voice.”
Beilman takes a similarly emotive approach to all the music he plays, whether he’s debuting a brand-new piece by Frederic Rzewski—check out the veteran radical’s Demons on YouTube—or revisiting something as familiar as Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which he’ll soon perform with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“When somebody thinks of classical music, they think of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’, or even the ‘Summer’ movement,” Beilman says. “Even now, it’s still used in films, and in the Netflix cooking show Chef’s Table, they do a version of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ as kind of the theme music. But now we have better authentic readings and editions of some of Vivaldi’s manuscripts—better, more authentic sources, so we can get one step closer to what Vivaldi intended.”
It’s not that he’s going to hew to early-music performance practice—his Stradivarius, ancient though it is, has been adapted for modern strings, for instance—but he’s going to do his best by the composition as it’s written, and the audience for whom it’s played.
“It’s important to understand exactly what the traditions and what the style is, but ultimately we are using modern equipment, and we’re performing in venues that are much, much, much bigger than the music rooms where these pieces would have been played,” Beilman says. “So there has to be a kind of constant balancing between understanding and honouring that style of authenticity, but also the practicality of ‘How do we make this a successful performance, which everyone in the hall can hear and can understand?’ ”
Benjamin Beilman joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday and Saturday (December 21 and 22) and the Massey Theatre at 2 p.m. on Sunday (December 23).