Berlin Philharmonic First Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley isn't just coming back to Pittsburgh this weekend -- he's going back to his klezmer roots.
For about the last year, he has been composing a klezmer concerto for violin and symphony orchestra, an idea he'd been thinking about for a long time, based on his lifelong involvement with klezmer music.
Bendix-Balgley was Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 2011 until 2015, when he moved to Germany to be First Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, a job to which he was appointed in 2014. A laureate of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition, among other competitions, he plays a 1732 Bergonzi violin.
He will premiere his Fidl-Fantazye: A Klezmer Concerto on Friday, with repeat performances this weekend with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Manfred Honeck, and 8 p.m. Sunday concert will be broadcast live by the Pittsburgh radio station WQED 89.3 and also online at www.wqed.org/fm.
Bendix-Balgley spoke to me about how he learned klezmer music and violin technique, and how he went about creating the klezmer concerto.
Laurie: Do you remember the first time you ever heard klezmer music? What was the occasion?
Noah: I grew up listening to both classical and klezmer music. My father Erik Bendix is a renowned folk dance teacher. He specializes in Eastern European folk dancing and Yiddish dance. In fact at my parent's wedding, the music was provided by klezmer musicians. I grew up listening to all this folk music, both in recordings and also in concert with live klezmer bands.
Laurie: How did you learn klezmer violin? Did you take lessons, have any mentors? Or did you just kind of do it all by ear?
Noah: I did have klezmer lessons and mentors. Because of my father's dancing, I was often at workshops and festivals where he was teaching dance. I was lucky to encounter some wonderful klezmer musicians at these festivals. Since I was already learning the violin, it seemed natural to learn klezmer as well. I was playing klezmer music already from age seven or so. I learned from klezmer musicians in bands such as Brave Old World and The Klezmatics. Two musicians who I studied with and who had a particularly strong influence on me were the wonderful violinist Alicia Svigals (from The Klezmatics) and the singer and violinist Michael Alpert (Brave Old World).
Although traditional klezmer tunes have been transcribed and notated, I think the best way to learn this music is by ear. I would learn a klezmer tune phrase by phrase together with the teacher. After you've really learned and internalized a new tune, then you can start to make it own, using ornaments and improvising around the melody. That is the really enjoyable part, especially if you are playing a group. Each repetition of the tune can be different: you can change the octave, play melody or accompaniment, and spice things up with your own particular style.
Laurie: Tell me a little about your involvement with Jewish and klezmer music over the years -- I've read that you were involved with some Jewish music festivals, etc.
Noah: I heard live klezmer music at concerts and at festivals like Klezfest. At these festivals I would take lessons, play in jam sessions, and perform live for dancing. I lived in a number of cities growing up, and I always had some contact with the local klezmer scene, whether it was in the Bay Area, Bloomington, or in Europe when I traveled there.
Laurie: Have there been other "Klezmer Symphonies"? What gave you the idea to do this?
Noah: I have always thought of my klezmer background as a good counterweight to my classical playing. When I play klezmer, there is a certain freedom that comes out and improvisation is encouraged. I try to cultivate this freedom in my classical playing as well, so that even with the structure and exactitude of playing a classical composition, there is a sense that I can play differently and freely each time.
I had the dream of a virtuoso piece in the klezmer style for violin and orchestra for a long time. I wanted to combine these two parts of my musical personality. When I became concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I started to think about commissioning a composer to write a klezmer-style concerto for me.
I did start looking around, and there is some wonderful classical music out there that uses klezmer influences. Composers like Osvaldo Golijov, Paul Schoenfield, David Stock, and many others have composed both small and large scale works with klezmer influences.
I looked around for a while, but sort of stalled in my search at some point.
Then through some discussions with people in the both the classical and klezmer world, I was encouraged to write the piece myself. When I spoke to Michael Alpert, looking for suggestions of composers or collaborators, he thought I should try to write it myself. And I then received the same encouragement from my father and from Maestro Manfred Honeck. I realized I wanted to write at least the violin part for myself.
Laurie: Have you composed on this scale before? (A symphony!) How long did it take you to write this piece?
Noah: I have never attempted something of this scale. I was quite interested in composing when I was young, until my mid-teens. But at a certain point, I prioritized my playing over composition. However, I do often compose my own cadenzas for violin concertos, and I enjoy tinkering around with some compositional ideas.
For Fidl-Fantazye, I composed the violin part and a piano reduction. Then I worked with the wonderful composer Samuel Adler, who realized and orchestrated the piece.
I was composing from last summer until January of this year. It was a challenge fitting it in with my concert schedule in Berlin and on tour. Samuel Adler was a wonderful collaborator. He worked quickly on the orchestration and we met, discussed some elements of the structure and corresponded frequently throughout the whole process.
Laurie: Tell me about the piece itself.
Noah: Fidl-Fantazye (Yiddish for 'Fiddle-Fantasia') is about 20 minutes and is in three movements that are played without pause. I decided to compose my own klezmer melodies rather than use existing ones. Each movement is a medley of traditional types of klezmer dances. For transitions, I used improvisatory sections in the Doina style.
The piece features a Chosidl- a slow and heavy line dance in the old Hassidic style, Freylekhs- the fast and energetic type of dance that we often associate with klezmer music, and a Hora- the typical slow dance in triple meter. I also composed a fast section that is in a more Turkish or eastern style, featuring some mixed meters.
I incorporated a melodic motiv using a musical version of the name "Samuel," which comes out as E-flat, A, E-natural, C, E-natural, A.
This name is my middle name, and I was named after my great-grandfather Samuel Leventhal. I never knew him, but he was an American violinist who went to Leipzig to study in the 1890s, and then became a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1900. Later on he was concertmaster of the Hartford Symphony. Once I chose Samuel Adler as my orchestrator, I thought it was a nice homage to tie everything together with this musical name motif.
I also included a couple of quotes from Mahler's 5th Symphony. I've always been fascinated by Mahler's use of folk music in his symphonies, including klezmer influences (for example in the 3rd movement of the 1st symphony). Mahler's 5th is on second half of the concert programs in Pittsburgh, following my klezmer concerto. I posed a hypothetical question to myself: "What if some of the melodies in Mahler's 5th had been klezmer tunes originally? What would they have sounded like?" So a slow melody in the 2nd movement of Mahler's 5th becomes a raucous Freylekhs in my concerto!
Laurie: Are you happy to be "coming home" to Pittsburgh for this? How is it going in Berlin? :)
Noah: My home is now in Berlin and it is incredibly exciting to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. I am constantly inspired and challenged there and I am enjoying meeting new people in Berlin and starting new artistic projects there.
I do still feel a close connection to Pittsburgh and to the Pittsburgh Symphony and it is wonderful to be able to premiere my concerto with Manfred Honeck and the PSO. I am so thankful for the four years I spent in Pittsburgh as concertmaster. The orchestra is a wonderful group of musicians and people and it really feels like family to me. So I am very happy to have this opportunity to present my piece, and I'm extreme grateful to Manfred Honeck for his encouragement and trust in me in this new project.
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Below is a video about the project, with a lot of great klezmer fiddle playing from Noah!
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