Review: Benjamin Beilman Plays Mozart 3 with the Long Beach Symphony

May 1, 2018, 12:34 PM · It's been 250 years since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his five violin concertos, and by now violinists know how to play them.

In fact, we know how to play them almost too well. Every facet of these works - fingerings, bowing, articulations - has been pored over, picked apart and decided upon by the finest experts in the field for centuries. We have routines, rules, expectations - it can be downright oppressive.

Which is why Ben Beilman's utterly inventive yet tastefully fitting performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 on Saturday night with the Long Beach Symphony, conducted by Eckart Preu, was such a satisfying revelation. Apparently it is possible to create one's own approach to this concerto, while still keeping its charm and Classical character. Beilman, 28, is the recipient of an Avery Fischer Career Grant and was First Prize winner in the 2010 Montreal Competition. His teachers have included Almita and Roland Vamos; Ida Kavafian and Pamela Frank at the Curtis Institute; and Christian Tetzlaff at the Kronberg Academy, and he's made several recordings, including Prokofiev: Complete Violin Sonatas with pianist Yekwon Sunwoo; and Spectrum.

When I learned this particular concerto, I closely followed every guideline provided by my musical map (the then-popular Schirmer-Franko edition): every fingering, every bowing, every articulation, even down the ridiculous ricochet in m. 64 that I could never execute under pressure. Since that time, other editions have gained prominence and performers are much more likely to turn to Mozart's original score/urtext (and discard said ridiculous ricochet). But back then, I was determined to conquer every idiosyncratic requirement written into the sheet music by generations of legendary experts. Somehow it never occurred to me to reverse-engineer the entire endeavor: Start with the sound and character music, and instead of trying to follow a map, draw one.

Beilman followed no map that I knew for this piece, when it came to all those little violinistic details. Yet the familiar musical ideas came across as clearly as I've ever heard them. Playing on the 1709 "Engelman" Strad that he has on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation (previously played by Vilde Frang and Lisa Batiashvili) Beilman seemed to find new colors, new ways to vary the tempo; he even threw in a few new musical decorations.

Benjamin Beilman
Benjamin Beilman.

I had the feeling he could have conducted the piece from the soloists' spot as well, such was his kinetic energy. He played along during the long orchestral tutti introduction, until it was time for his solo. His first-movement cadenza displayed a wide range of ideas and key changes yet never lost its connection to Mozart's musical material. After the performance Beilman told me that he had used a first-movement cadenza by his mentor, Christian Tetzlaff. He added that Tetzlaff has never actually written down the cadenza; Beilman had transcribed it all by ear!

The second movement had moments that were mesmerizing, but Beilman seemed most at ease and in his element during the buoyant third movement, during which the charm and elegance of music and musician seemed to meld into one happy character. The very brief cadenzas veered off in such unexpected directions, yet landed right on the spot; it was downright delightful.

When it came to the rest of the concert, I have to admit that for this review I was something of an embedded reporter, having played in the second violin section for all but the Mozart (which had a reduced orchestra, allowing several of my colleagues and I to race backstage, through the doors and into the auditorium, to see Beilman's performance as audience!)

Long Beach Symphony violinists with Ben Beilman
Violinists backstage with Ben Beilman: Long Beach Concertmaster Roger Wilkie, Vivian Wolfe, Laurie Niles, Ben Beilman, Dimitry Olevsky.

So I can only comment from the perspective of a second violinist, not an audience member, for the rest. I'll offer a few thoughts:

First, the concert began with Richard Strauss's exuberant "Don Juan." As mentioned in our last weekend vote, for a violinist, "Don Juan" is an audition piece, and something of a nemesis at that. Of course, the first violin part is what everyone must learn for auditions, so to play the second violin part is to learn the piece anew (though this was not the first time I'd done so). With the first violin part embedded as ironclad muscle memory, the second violinist must thwart a lot of instincts to spin the other direction, play alternate passage work, etc. But getting beyond that, it's full of juicy violin playing: fast, lyrical, throbbing with emotion.

A friend of mine suggested that this piece is completely worthless, not one of Richard Strauss's best works. I don't agree, but I'll concede that it has its problems. For example, it is relentlessly cheesy. Furthermore, the subject of this tone poem is a bit troubling: it romanticizes a womanizing snake of a guy who, if he lived in the present day, would likely be the subject of multiple lawsuits as well as unfavorable treatment in the media. (He does, in the tone poem, meet his end by the sword of an angry father.) By a number of measures, we shouldn't like this piece! Yet I actually love this music and the way it just sails right over the top, again and again. It's fun to play, it's fun to listen to. Go figure!

Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral" also sails over the top but in a completely different way; it is a musical depiction of a cathedral in the sky, a place where she imagines her brother, Andrew, who died at age 33. While "Don Juan" is all bluster, this piece was a peaceful ascent, ending with some 50 musicians of the orchestra gently jingling Chinese medicine balls, a shimmering effect that was quite unique.

The program concluded with Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" -- piercing music at times, and if we want to talk about reaching particular heights, Prokofiev sends the violins right into outer space, for example at the Grave of Juliet - even the second violins play an "F" that just a a fifth from the edge of my piano keyboard - is that legal? But I'll argue that, when it comes to orchestra music, it seldom gets better than Prokofiev. If you don't particularly like Prokofiev then please go listen to it a lot more; every time I play Prokofiev, it lingers in my mind and shows itself to me in new ways; I wind up wanting to listen to it more, even though the concert is over!

BELOW: For those interested in hearing violinist Benjamin Beilman, here he performs excerpts from Ysa├┐e's Sonata No. 4 and Bach solo Sonata No. 3.

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