Describing one of his mentors as “crazy in the best possible way” Benjamin Beilman, a 27-year old American violinist who looks half his age, captivated both the seasoned pros around him at Kleinhans Music Hall and the audience on Saturday. He’ll be onstage again this Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at Kleinhans.
In a conversation, Beilman spoke of his early education at the small, nurturing Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and then a sort of graduate school in Europe with violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Many, many young musicians these days have incredible technique with perfect intonation and lightning fast runs, but fail to excite an audience. Not so with Beilman, who has the chops, but also something else. He quotes Tetzlaff’s teaching: “Beauty is the enemy of expression.”
Until several months ago, Beilman was playing on an American violin on temporary loan. Made in 2004, he described the sound as a “cannon.” But noting the expiration date on that loaner, he applied to the Nippon Music Foundation, and was lent a Stradivarius violin made over 300 years ago, known as “The Engleman.” He said that the Strad provides very satisfying low notes, which you can hear immediately in the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saens at the concert.
That’s the second piece on the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s program. The first work is an eight-minute summer pastoral by 20th century French composer Arthur Honegger and after intermission the orchestra digs into Beethoven’s very popular 6th Symphony, “The Pastoral.” When ask to connect the violin concerto to the outer “summer” works, Beilman said: “The second movement of the Saint-Saens has many of the same undulating, swinging rhythms as the Beethoven… the clouds have cleared, the sun is shining, not a worry in the world.”
Following the concerto, the audience was on its feet, but these days “standing ovation” means nothing. What was telling was the reaction of the orchestra, professional musicians who have seen it all. When they like someone, they wave their bows up and down. But when they put down their expensive instruments and actually applaud, then you know they really, really like someone. You don’t see that often, but that was the case Saturday night.
Beilman played an encore, the “Gavotte” from Bach’s Partita Number 1 for solo violin. It was old Bach, but played in an exciting new way, sounding more like a 19th century showpiece. My only quibble was that, given all the love that was in the air at that moment, I think an older soloist would have responded more warmly, maybe engaged the audience in a little conversation, more “Buffalo-style,” and probably played a second encore.
And, not a quibble, but the opening work on the program, the eight-minute-long “Summer Pastoral” by Honegger, seemed tentative. It took a long time to get into a groove.
But the Beethoven was, well, everything that makes Beethoven the greatest. Within seconds of the familiar opening, everything in my little world just felt so right. Guest conductor John Axelrod (a Leonard Bernstein protégé) made sure that the orchestra had that big, big, rich sound that Lenny would have loved. The dramatic fourth movement describing a thunderstorm was the most realistic I’ve ever heard. And with his longer hair and athletic body movements, Axelrod looked just like the current darling of the classical music world, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, almost leaping forward off the podium to encourage timpanist Dinesh Joseph to bang louder, Louder, LOUDER!
On the general topic of “These Kids Today” Violinist Beilman isn’t the only 20-something to perform this April at Kleinhans. Last week we heard the stunning 22-year old French guitarist Thibaut Garcia. And, after Easter, on Friday morning, April 21 at 10:30 a.m. (and Saturday, April 22 at 8:00 p.m., both concerts at Kleinhans) we’ll hear 29-year-old Natasha Paremsky play Beethoven’s mighty Piano Concerto No. 3.
And, one of the younger members of the BPO, violinist Megan Prokes, will be joining Eastman School of Music pianist Alison D’Amato at Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center on Tuesday, April 11th at 7:30 for a “BPO-Canisius Connection: An Informally Formal” recital of shorter works in the first half and after the intermission Brahms’ dramatic Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (e.g. you are the parent of someone who is performing), give this concert a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the performance is pretty far off base, or the music itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to hear live music, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good music making. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the performance and the music are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!