Noah Bendix Balgley: Concertmaster of the Berlin PHilharmonic
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra had been on strike for several months, and this was their first concert back in Heinz Hall following several months of painful negotiations between management and the musicians' union. Celebrating the end of what seemed an arduous strike, it seemed fitting that Noah Bendix-Balgely, (the previous Concertmaster of the PSO) would return to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the orchestra. Two months prior to Noah's return, I had interviewed Ann Martindale Williams, Principal Cello of the PSO, to ask her questions about the strike and her views on orchestral careers. When I learned that Noah Bendix-Balgely was flying back from Berlin to perform with the PSO, I thought "Why not ask Noah his thoughts about the future of symphony orchestras?" Several rounds of emails later, Noah agreed to an interview between rehearsals at Duquesne University. Noah had some beautiful insights into the future of classical music, and what millennials should be doing to create a sustainable career in music.
LS: What do you think American symphony orchestras will look like in twenty years?
NBB: I think similar to today people will be doing more than just playing in a symphony. People are already now quite active teaching on the side, playing chamber music etc. Orchestras will look for players coming in who have a breadth of experience and ability across chamber music and an entrepreneurial spirit. Musicians in major orchestras obviously have an incredible level to reach that point, but also are all around musicians and artists, and that involves not only playing but the ability to connect with audiences and patrons and speak and advocate for the importance of the art form. In a broader sense, such musicians take control of their identity as artists rather than just rank or file members of an orchestra. That’s already changing and will have to change more.
LS: What is the role of multidisciplinary collaboration in your opinion?
NBB: I’m fairly busy concertizing but we will often have works that are staged and placed in new settings. I think those collaborations are useful and interesting. I always feel like other art forms such as painting, poetry, and dance can inform what we do as musicians.
LS: What has been your experience of planting classical music in non-conventional venues?
NBB: I’ve done a couple of things in restaurants, and nightclubs and I think that’s another thing that will become more common; this idea that it doesn’t have to be in a concert hall for people to appreciate it. Of course in other settings, there is a nice aspect that you can have a sort of closeness to the audience who you are communicating to. People always tell me in chamber music concerts that in small recital halls they like the certain closeness between the performer and the audience. But that can be brought even closer if you are playing a house concert in a nice living room--or you’re playing in a bar. And there’s an immediacy to the communication, because people are right there. I think that’s important to explore. It’s a little less distant than when you’re in a big concert hall and hundreds of feet away from the musicians.
LS: What’s your opinion of new music and its role in the symphony?
NBB: I think it’s very important that we keep broadening the repertoire. I mean, all the music we play was new at some point. Of course now we play only a fraction of what was composed from those different eras. We’ve decided that certain composers' works are special and worth always coming back to. But it’s important that now we continue to broaden that repertoire, because if we don’t, then it’s kind of a museum art form. As people are writing new music and these works get performed, some of it will work and some of it might not, but it’s important we continue to explore the art form and push it further. Audiences often go into a concert hall and cringe at a new work on the program and think “Oh no, what’s going to happen?” But they probably did the same thing one hundred years ago at the work's premiere. So, it’s necessary to perform new works because they may eventually find themselves in the standard repertoire.
LS: What steps should millennials be taking to create a sustainable career in music?
NBB: I think being a little more entrepreneurial and well-rounded as an artist and musician is important because even twenty years ago, if you got a job in an ensemble, or management as a soloist, you were set up and could obtain concerts. Now that level is so high that one has to really work to make connections on one’s own. In today’s cultural environment, there’s a lot of noise out there, and so it’s important that up-and-coming artists make those connections and find what their particular voice is, and have a passionate advocacy of the art form and why it’s important. That has to go along with education, because unfortunately education systems all around have been de-emphasizing the arts and music. I think it’s more important now than ever -- I don’t think people realize they miss it. If you go through school and get to adulthood and have never experienced what art or music does for you, it's something that’s missing in your life, and yet you don’t even know it. We as musicians have to be passionate and determined to get it out there, and help people get exposure to it and information about it. If you show the coolness of Mahler, and how he uses folk tunes, and give them a frame of reference, people will start to get it.
I had a string trio in Germany, and we played at prisons, old people’s homes, schools, and one time we played at a school home for mentally challenged kids. We played a normal program, Mozart, Schubert and then we played a Schoenberg trio, which is quite thorny and hard to get. These kids didn’t have any knowledge that this music should be difficult to understand. And they totally got it, they really responded. We often decide that we have to make the music nice. But the thing is kids don’t make those prejudgements. They’re taking in information and responding to it. A lot of times we sanitize things in a way that maybe doesn’t make it so interesting and it shows you that you never know what’s going to catch someone’s ear or attention. If we keep going out there and try to share this art form and why we feel passionate about it, people will respond. If we don’t do that, there will not necessarily be an audience in the future.
Here are my takeaways: What are yours? Comment below!
Takeaway #1: Orchestras in the future will look for players who have a breadth of experience and ability across chamber music and possess an entrepreneurial spirit.
Takeaway #2: Up and coming artists must find what their particular voice is, have a passionate advocacy of the art form and understand why it’s important.
Takeaway #3: It’s necessary to perform new works from modern composers. Such works may eventually find themselves in the standard repertoire.