Q & A with Benjamin Beilman

He’s back! Benjamin Beilman – who dazzled us with his virtuosic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 2019 – returns to the TSO as soloist in the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius. A performer at the top of his game, Benjamin Beilman has performed in recent years with the Chicago Symphony, London Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Swedish Radio Symphony and BBC Scottish Symphony. We asked Benjamin a few questions about the special violin he’ll be playing.

TSO: Yours is a very valuable and special instrument. Can you tell us a few things about it?

Benjamin Beilman, Photo by Sophie Zhai

Benjamin Beilman: This violin, made by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri 'del Gesù' in Cremona in 1740, is certifiably one of the 5 or 6 most storied violins in the world. Its moniker "Ysaÿe" comes from the early 20th century Belgian virtuoso and composer, Eugène Ysaÿe, who played the instrument in the latter half of his career. Ysaÿe was so devoted to this violin that, when it was restored by a luthier in 1928, he asked for a handwritten label to be placed inside the violin. It reads "Ce del Jesus fut le fidèle compagnone de ma vie" (this violin was the faithful companion of my life.) When Ysaÿe died in 1931, he was granted a state funeral by Belgium. In the procession, this violin was carried on a red velvet pillow in front of his casket. Thankfully, they didn't bury it with him!

In addition to Ysaÿe, the French conductor and violinist Charles Munch, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, and Sergey Khachatryan have all performed on this violin. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have the use of this instrument on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation of Japan since July 2022.

TSO: Does it have its own seat when you fly?

BB: I have a nearly indestructible carbon fiber and metal mesh violin case, so I don't need a separate seat for the violin when I fly. Just a very careful eye on the overhead bin.

Handwritten label from the inside of the "Ysaÿe", added in 1928.

TSO: And what about the bow, is it noteworthy too?

BB: I am proud to say that I own several of my own bows, the most prized is one made by François Xavier Tourte in France circa 1815. It was once used by the Croatian violinist Zlatko Balakovic and has been my primary bow for the last 5 years. Audiences (and many players!) often think the violin is what gives each performer their distinct sound, but really, it's the bow.

TSO: You have to negotiate all kinds of technical challenges in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Does having a violin of that calibre help and, if so, how?

BB: The Sibelius violin concerto is, at its core, about struggle. Sibelius wrote this concerto after abandoning his personal ambitions to become a virtuoso soloist; I find it highly significant that this concerto is his only work in the genre- almost as if this had to be his first and last word on the subject. The technical demands still haunt violinists today, which is probably exactly what Sibelius wanted.

A violin of this calibre is certainly helpful in terms of projection and color pallete. For instance, the opening of the second movement is one enormously long phrase that has to deepen and develop over 3 minutes. This violin produces a voluptuous but brilliant tone, so it's certainly a relief knowing I won't have to struggle to sustain this line. Sadly, there's no escaping the pyrotechnical demands of the outer movements. However, it's comforting to know that some of my favorite historical violinists have shed blood, sweat, and tears on the same fingerboard.