A sure hand, at a young age, with violinist Benjamin Beilman
A few Sundays ago, the violinist Benjamin Beilman was in the midst of a rehearsal with pianist Orion Weiss, Beilman’s partner for his upcoming Celebrity Series of Boston recital. They were doing their first run-through of “Demons,” a formidable new piece by Frederic Rzewski, when a text appeared on Beilman’s phone. It was his manager, informing him that French violinist Renaud Capucon had had to withdraw from two sets of concerts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that were to begin four days later. Could Beilman step in on short notice to play three virtuoso pieces, two of which he hadn’t played in some time?
That’s a confluence of circumstances that might make even a seasoned musician hesitate. But Beilman simply carried on with the rehearsal until break, at which point he told his manager, sure, he’d do the Detroit concerts.
“Sometimes it’s good not to have too much time to stress about something,” he said by phone from Detroit. “When you get that text or that call, you immediately think: Is this possible? Maybe I’m naive or overly ambitious, but for me it was, yes, I can most certainly squeeze in whatever, 20 hours of practice a day if I need to until the concert.”
Or perhaps it’s neither naivete nor ambition, but rather a quiet confidence usually found in musicians with far more experience under their belts. That’s the impression one gets from talking with Beilman, 28, whose playing already has its own sure balance of technical command, intensity, and interpretive finesse.
His self-assurance probably comes in part from the fact that despite early evidence of his musical gifts — he picked up the violin at 5 and seems rarely to have put it down — he was never considered a prodigy. Which he’s happy about.
“To be completely frank, there were plenty of people who had far more ability than me,” he said. “Who were more talented, more advanced earlier on.” He admits to being “a naturally competitive person,” so seeing his peers at one level simply prodded him to get better. “Whoever was in that next step, I was always clawing my way up to try and match them. So being just under the cream at the very top helped keep me motivated and hungry.”
His early maturity also likely came from his studies with the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, one of the world’s most complete musicians. Asked what specifically he took from working with him, Beilman mentioned that for Tetzlaff, “the violin is kind of an afterthought. It happens to be the medium through which he interprets music, but he almost never thinks through a string perspective. He’s always talking about orchestration, sounds of nature — all the important things that are not to do with the actual wooden instrument in your hand.”
Beilman’s recital includes music by Beethoven and Bartok, as well as the local premiere of the Rzewski, a piece commissioned for him by the Music Accord consortium. Beilman had gotten to know the American-born composer’s music largely through YouTube videos, including one in which Rzewski, a superb pianist, gives a magisterial performance of his best-known work, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”
“There’s a core strength behind all of his music,” Beilman said when asked what attracted him to Rzewski’s music. “You get the sense that there’s a lot of muscle and aggression and aggravation to it. I know that sounds weird to gravitate toward. But there’s something incredibly compelling about that.”
“Demons,” which is dedicated to the political activist Angela Davis, has the four-movement form of a 19th-century sonata. Its musical style and syntax, though, are clearly those of a present-day composer. This accord between old and new is of more than aesthetic significance for the composer. In a program note, Rzewski approvingly notes a trend in new music that “in some way continues the classical tradition.” He then adds: “Although Marx’ analysis of capitalism as a ruthless system following its relentless course independently of human will continues to be valid, there are nonetheless reasons to think that alternatives are possible.”
“It feels to me like he really believes strongly in these revolutionary ideas, while still holding onto old forms,” Beilman said. “The idea of a four-movement sonata — it’s conservative. But what’s packed inside of it, he wants to be punchy and aggressive and revolutionary.”
And it’s that punchiness, that muscular power to speak through musical forms, that appeals so strongly to Beilman, independent of the particular message behind it.
“What draws me in,” he said, “is this idea that there’s someone with such strong convictions that’s able to communicate them through a fairly abstract form. Whatever motivation or political orientation he’s coming from is almost irrelevant because he can communicate that without a program or without words or interviews or anything.”
Benjamin Beilman, violin, and Orion Weiss, piano
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Longy School of Music of Bard College’s Pickman Hall, March 7, 8 p.m. Tickets $25-$60. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org