Integrity and Authenticity: Benjamin Bowman

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Having recently joined the ranks of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra as its Concertmaster, Benjamin Bowman has garnered critical acclaim for his virtuosic prowess, and inspiring interpretative facility within the realms of classical and contemporary music. As a chamber musician and soloist, Bowman has frequently appeared with leading chamber music ensembles internationally, including the twice Grammy-nominated ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Music), Art Of Time Ensemble, and Leondari Ensemble. To date, his discography includes releases on the Sony Masterworks/RCA Red Seal, Chandos, ATMA Classique, and Innova labels. He is a former Associate Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company, in Toronto, and an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Bowman takes time out from his busy concert schedule to meet with Final Note at the Lincoln Center in New York, to discuss the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, bows, and future projects.

What motivated the move from Toronto to New York — was there a sense of 'culture shock'?

I made the move to New York for a number of reasons. Firstly, I spent time in the city as a teenager, and I studied at the Juilliard pre-college, while my older sister was finishing her Masters degree at Juilliard as well. Secondly, I have a lot of old friends and colleagues in New York that I always have dreamt of working with more frequently, so being near them will increase the chances of that actually happening. Thirdly, New York is a mecca, not just to artists, but to talented people from all walks of life. It is obviously a magnetic and electric atmosphere, and I love to live in the middle of such an environment.

How have you settled into your recent appointment as concertmaster of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra?

The company is wonderful, and the musicians in the orchestra are tough-skinned but soft-souled. It’s a very positive and supportive environment in which to work — you’d hope so, having the chance to play in the Met Opera house everyday! It doesn’t get much better than that. I will begin touring with the company next year, and I’m sure that will add dimension to the job. The Concertmaster is typically the only member of the orchestra to tour with the company, so I will be outnumbered by dancers...even by conductors! It will be a great immersion into the world of dance, so I’m particularly excited by that.

Generally relegated to ‘the pit’, is there ever a feeling of inferiority within the dynamic of the ballet orchestra when compared with that of the concert orchestra?

I shouldn’t speak for my colleagues, as this is a very personal thing, but I say: "no". I have played in the pit for over 10 years in opera and ballet orchestras, and many of the most sensitive musicians I know are pit players. Of course, we all need to poke our heads above ground from time to time and get some light. We all find opportunities to be the center of attention. But truly, that’s not the point. In ballet, I concede that the spectacle is onstage, and we are playing a supportive role. But as an art form, it is a sum of its parts. As in everyday life, understanding one’s role is half the battle. It’s really the same with dance as it is with opera, and even in symphonic performance, or any interpretive performance. Even if we’re in the bright lights, the experience that people pay for when they buy tickets (knowingly or not) is to have a satisfying sonic relationship with a composer. The performers are mere conduits for the message of a poet from another place and time. The most profound revelation an artist can receive is the catharsis that this liberation can provide.

Has your appreciation, or understanding of the workings of the ballet, been enhanced since joining the company?

Absolutely! I have had the chance to work with the finest dancers I have ever encountered. To work up close with them in rehearsal at the studios is to truly appreciate the sheer energy and commitment that must be invested in such an undertaking.

How popular is ballet in New York?

It seems that ballet is alive and well in New York. Several thousand people attend multiple performances everyday, usually in two adjacent buildings at Lincoln Center alone! Their enthusiasm is something pretty unique!

As a performer, what do you do to remain relevant and current within today's classical music scene?

Inquisitiveness, integrity, humility. The classical music scene has latched on to trendy ways of doing business over past decades, and it has never resulted in an especially positive outcome. We have phenomenal visual representations of artists’ flailing limbs and spewing sweat...heated and passionate performances.... But, as audiences are increasingly in control of what they choose to take in, they continue to side-step this type of marketing. I believe that if they’re not engaged by a live performance in a way that genuinely moves them, they know that they have more options to replace that experience with something meaningful than ever before, be it online or at another concert venue. Often, the artists’ solution to this competition is to try to make a spectacle of themselves, and therefore the music that they are performing.

One of the greatest things about classical music (and classical art in general) is its structure and integrity, like a complex and sophisticated wine. One can never truly have the answers, and interpretation is open to change and evolution, eternally. We as artists are merely planets revolving around the celestial body that is the work we are trying to portray. It will look a little different every time we come back to it, bringing with us our own experience. If classical art is to survive, integrity and authenticity must prevail. If we as artists remain capable of taking people on a journey (where we are also asking questions along the way), we will continue to find employment in the 21st century, and beyond.

How did you come to own your current bows, the Husson and Henry?

There are dramatically differing opinions on the impact a bow can make. Maybe, it’s because of my last name and all the teasing that comes along with that, but I do have a very strong relationship with bows, and I think they are at least as important as the instrument one chooses to play on. Unlike violins, which have been largely standardized in terms of materials and dimensions, bows vary quite dramatically in weight, and in quality of materials. Other factors include the camber of a bow (its curve), and how flexible or stiff the player likes the bow to be. All of these things aside, the bow also has to have a positive relationship with the instrument. Believe it or not, hearing two different bows played on the same violin can sound like two different instruments. I’ve always found this fascinating, and if I had my way I would probably own dozens. Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive, so I’ve been limited to two fine bows for the time being, and I’m not complaining. My favorite go-to is my Joseph Henry, made in Paris c. 1860. He is widely regarded as one of the finest bow makers.

What instrument are you playing at the moment, and tell us a little about its history?

I don’t play on a Stradivarius. I play on a Strad model though (as do countless other violinists) — good enough for me! I really love my violin. It was made by Francois Louis Pique in Paris (1798). He was one of the great French makers, but is less known than the French 'Strad', Nicolas Lupot, or J.B. Vuillaume, who brought the concept of big business and strict branding control to violin making a few decades later. Pique’s instruments can sometimes sound just as good as anything out there (yes, even as good as some Strads), and I feel fortunate enough to own an investment quality instrument. Not only is it an exquisite work of art to look at, but in my opinion there’s no better way in which I could invest my money... I get to play music on my savings!

What draws you to contemporary music such as that of the album 'Nothing Left to Destroy'?

Contemporary music continues to try to push out the boundaries, but as is suggested in the title, 'Nothing Left to Destroy', much has already been done in this respect. It’s a little bit like space travel: you often find yourself in uncharted territory. This is good for a number of reasons, but mostly because uncharted territory requires us to find the identity of the new place. When we face the challenge of interpreting a piece for the very first time, we can get a better sense of what it would’ve felt like to be in the band that read Beethoven’s 5th for its world premiere. Maybe, this brings us one step closer to a new set of questions about any other given piece we might play later. This is not to say that I only learn new music as an exercise, but it’s an inadvertent bonus. Primarily, I just love to see what is out there.

'Discofication of the Mongols' (from 'Nothing Left to Destroy') was a month-long project of massive demand. "Virtually impossible" would be one way to describe it! I had to learn new techniques of playing the violin in order to be able to play passages of that piece, and I had to learn to play them like a dense jungle of a musical language on a pre-recorded 'tape'. Over time, and with great effort, the language came into clearer focus, and the challenges dissolved into a new expression for me, and possibly also for the composer. We were in a dialogue where it wasn’t about either of us getting our way, but one where we were exploring possibilities rather than mere boundaries. When I listen to the final product now, I hear the myriad of influences on the composer, and the relationship that we developed over the half-year in which we collaborated. That’s the beauty of working with living composers!

How do you find the recording process?

This is a massive question. I love recording, but I sometimes wish we could go back to the one-take system of early recordings, not to mention the simpler acoustics that came along with them. I think early recordings are invaluable — many were done in live performance with audience present, and remain unaltered. Something happened along the way, and we became obsessed with the recording studios, excessively reverberant acoustics, perfect technique and intonation, and we lost our audience along the way — the one component we so desperately need to keep us inspired! The truth is that there’s really nothing better than live performance.

Have you any interest in teaching, or conducting?

All of the above, yes. I do coach and teach Master Classes from time to time, but I haven’t yet found myself in a settled enough situation to commit the time and resources I would need to teach in the manner I believe is necessary. Conducting... maybe another lifetime.

Is music a big part of your home life?

Music is most of my life. On the rare occasion that I’m home and I don’t have anything looming for the next days or weeks, I usually choose silence over music. It is surprisingly refreshing!

Tell us about your plans for the summer.

Besides anticipating the imminent birth of my first child (!), I will be traveling quite a lot this summer. This is typical for me. Most of the time when I’m not playing with the ABT, I’m touring or playing chamber music projects elsewhere. The first stop for me this summer will be the Saronic Gulf in Greece, followed by another intense, but rewarding, chamber music festival on the North Sea in Denmark, followed by a month-long tour in Iran! I will return to New York just in time for the ABT season to resume in October.

For more information on Benjamin Bowman see: http://benjaminbowman.ca/

All images displayed in this article are subject to copyright.