American-Canadian violinist Benjamin Bowman performs to critical acclaim throughout North America, Europe and Asia. A very active and engaged chamber musician and soloist, he is a member or frequent guest artist for leading chamber music ensembles internationally, including the twice Grammy-nominated ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory), Art Of Time, and Leondari Ensemble. Bowman was featured on the 2013 Juno-winning album ‘Levant’ and the 2011 Juno-nominated disc ‘Armenian Chamber Music’ with the Amici Chamber Ensemble. Other collaborative work includes extensive immersion in contemporary/new music, improvisation and performance with singer/songwriters.
Bowman was Associate Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra: a ten year appointment that began when he was only 23 years old. Bowman was recently appointed concertmaster with the American Ballet Theatre orchestra in New York. This week Bowman will be participating in the Saronic Festival, a celebration of chamber music on the island of Spetses Greece beginning August 4th.
Bowman’s performances have been recorded for radio broadcast in the USA, in Canada with the CBC, the UK, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Korea. His discography includes recent solo and chamber-music releases on the Sony Masterworks/RCA Red Seal, ATMA Classique, and Innova labels. Bowman received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
And Bowman—as the name might imply—is obsessed with bows, the owner of two very old bows (a Husson and an Henry), and a visitor to bow shops all over the world.
On the occasion of the 2014 Saronic Festival I ask Bowman ten questions: five about himself and five more about his participation in the festival.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I notice, possibly as a function of age, that I’ve adopted many of my father’s mannerisms. But as soon as I stop to think about how I’ve just said something in exactly the same way as my father would, I realize that I’ve just been tapping my foot as my mom would… I guess I really feel like I’m really a mix of my parents. But if you twist my arm, I guess maaaybe I’m a bit more like my dad.…
With respect to our careers, we seem pretty different. My folks are both born teachers. They are university profs (mom in nursing, dad in philosophy of music and music ed), and focus a lot on writing and research in their respective fields. But my dad actually started off as a trombonist. He even played for awhile with the “Fabulous Flippers”, a pretty well-known band touring around the midwest in the 60s. I grew up listening to him practice with “Music Minus One” records, and watching him direct the university jazz band. My mom is also very musical (she’s got a great voice!), even if most of her performance experience was confined to the house, singing along with the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa…
All of this to say that the life I live now has come from both of my parents’ fundamental love for music, and their desire to share this with their children (and others), even if on the surface it appears I was raised more along academic channels.
That my father writes a lot on the subject of music education is not insignificant to how I identify with him. One of his specific focuses is on “being musical and educating musically”. I love this phrasing. This obviously resonates strongly with me, as I believe I have been raised with this in mind. Perhaps I’m nothing more than a philosopher’s guinea pig! Regardless, whatever is behind the words he writes and the notes I play, I believe we share a common philosophy about music, and about life.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a violinist?
Most people probably don’t equate the notion of being a violinist with countless hours spent alone. It must seem like a very social activity, playing an instrument. Naturally, people usually are only exposed to us – or us to people – when the lights come on and the music is performed… But to be a violinist is not just to love the music, and to perform. It is to live the music, and to imagine the life that has gone into it, to empathize with the composer as much as possible. This requires immense commitment on the part of the individual. The mastery of the craft is the obviously massive time commitment, but no 5 year-old that picks up a violin can possibly understand the soul-searching they will endure in order to become a professional. And to become a truly successful professional is yet another level of commitment, along with a dose of luck.
To play the violin – to be a musician – is to communicate, on as profound a level as possible. This is the best – and the worst – thing about being a violinist. Once you are committed, there’s no going back! Great music is like a drug. It’s not just the high you get from performing that is great – it’s the complete absorption into another realm of existence, often with friends, often in front of hundreds or thousands of people. At the best of times, you’ll completely forget where you are for a few hours. You just never want to come down.
Is it worth it? Yep.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I admire anyone who does what they do with utter commitment, skill and passion. It can be anything. If any of these three components are missing, I’m really not interested.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Haha, there are so many!
For this conversation, let’s go with the making and restoring of violin bows and violins! I’m actually trying to clear some dates in my calendar to learn how to do this. It’s a beautiful art; one that hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years. I love the idea of a workshop full of old non-electric tools, listening to music that I love, possibly looking out a window into the countryside…. Basically, I wish I could create something tangible and long-lasting.
Music is wonderful, but it vanishes as soon as it happens.
At very least, it’d be great to be able to be confident enough to do all of the required maintenance on my equipment. When you travel around with instruments made of wood, they need adjusting pretty often since all the parts expand and contract with the various climates. And the bows need to have the hair replaced every so often as well. Most of us classical string players wouldn’t dare touch our instruments or bows for fear of causing the slightest bit of damage, and potentially ruining an irreplaceable work of art. This doesn’t seem right.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I just had a little two-minute vacation, fantasizing about the next time that might happen…thank you! I love to camp, and to hike. I really enjoy the outdoors and reconnecting with nature. I actually feel it is a vital experience, one that recharges the body and soul.
When I can’t get all of my camping gear together, I love to eat well and drink well!
Five more concerning the Saronic Chamber Music Festival in August 2014.
1-Please tell us more about the Saronic Chamber Music Festival and how it figures in your life right now.
The SCMF is a haven for chamber music. It’s a stunningly beautiful and evocative environment; a perfect place to meet and work with extraordinary musicians from around the world.
This will be my third time going back (the festival is in its 4th year). When I first visited Galatas, Greece was in the heat of economic crisis. It was quiet, at least by tourism standards. Spirits were high though, and the festival, clearly nurtured by love and determination, was embraced by the local community. It is touching to see the relationships that will create the foundation of the SCMF’s future materialize and grow, along with the audience presence. The Saronic Gulf deserves a world class music festival, and the musicians who go there love to be there. We are all committed to engaging with the community, whether it means busking on the streets or meeting local shop owners, or just talking with audience members. I must say this is a rarity in the modern corporate world. The feeling of family and community keep us coming back, because there’s really no other place like it.
2-Do you have a favourite moment in one of those works?
The Schoenberg sends chills down my spine, every time. It is unbelievable music. The Brahms sextet warms my blood and fills me with love. The Mendelssohn quintet flashes and dazzles. I can’t pick a moment!
3- Talk about the requirements of chamber music, and what it means to you as a violinist to be playing this repertoire.
I think I’ve inadvertently answered this question in my previous answers. But I can reiterate that a great deal of time and commitment is required to become a musician. Sweat and maybe even some blood, over the years. Certainly many tears….To play chamber music is to open the door to some of the most intimate work of the greatest composers to walk the earth. It ’s not for the faint of heart. What does it mean to be a violinist playing this repertoire? Woohoo, is what it means.
4- Please put your feelings about classical music into context for us, especially with respect to what you’re playing and doing this year.
Without trying to go too deeply into this subject (I could probably write a book about it), I’ll say a couple of things.
First and foremost, I LOVE the music that I play. I am grateful for its existence in the world. And for all the hardships involved in trying to play dead people’s music in a world preoccupied with living people stuff, it’s truly an honor. This music is alive, and will always contain the essence of life, no matter how old it is, or how dead the composers are. (I also play the music of living composers, and I compose as well, for the record…)
Classical music, or “music”, as I like to call it, is truly an auditory experience. This is not a popular notion in the world at present. People want to SEE stuff. So do I, I’ll admit. To try to keep up with the times, my industry tries to sparkle up the music and make it impressive to young people – “to attract new audiences” – but it’s not really what it’s about, and they should admit it. There a niche for that. I really believe there’s a time and a place where just sitting in silence and letting great music stream directly through your ears and into your soul can be more satisfying than just about anything. I honestly do not care what the person playing the music looks like, so long as they do their job well.
I struggled for a long time with the value of playing old music in this world. I felt it was irrelevant somehow, or unappreciated. It was stuffy with all the tuxedos and rules… But I’ve come a long way with this. I now know that there is value in performing this music (especially live), not just selfishly, but as a service to those who have also discovered it, or who are open to giving it a try. It is therapy.
5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
One of my best teachers, Mr. David Zafer. A true musician, this man taught me for awhile when I was a teenager, and he helped me to find myself in the violin. What a gift! One could feel the joy he experienced from his work. He was certainly brutally honest at times – even mean, but also gentle and supportive, and hilarious, and incredibly generous with his time. My lessons with him were sometimes 5-7 hours long – however long it took to get the point across. I suppose I was a bit dense, then?
A few weeks ago I was in New York playing in an orchestra I recently started work with, and a substitute in the 2nd violin section approached me and told me that she had also studied with David Zafer. The difference between us is that she just retired from the Met Opera orchestra… He has taught across (at least) three generations of successful violinists. And he’s still teaching!
The Saronic Chamber Music festival runs August 4 – 10, 2014 with concerts in Spetses, Hydra, Poros and Galatas. For more information visit http://www.saronicfestival.com