Noah Bendix-Balgley is currently first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic – a position he won in 2014. We talk to Noah about his experience playing with the orchestra, the differences between auditions in the United States and Europe, his audition preparation process and also ask for advice to those auditioning.
- How long have you been playing as concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic? Is the experience what you expected?
I started playing with the Berlin Philharmonic in the fall of 2014. It has a wonderful and exciting experience, and I am still challenged and energized by the opportunity to make music with such amazing colleagues here in Berlin.
- What was your first day on the job like?
I was very nervous. I had won the audition 8 months earlier, but hadn’t yet played with the orchestra at all. My first program included Richard Strauss ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, which of course has a large and difficult concertmaster solo. I had prepared a great deal, but didn’t know what to expect in terms of how the group functions in rehearsal. Once the rehearsal started and we started playing, I was able to calm down a bit and get into the music making.
- What have been some of the highlights playing with the orchestra?
Certainly one highlight was the Beethoven Symphony cycle that the orchestra did last season. We recorded all the symphonies, and performed the cycle in a number of wonderful halls: Berlin Philharmonie, Paris Philharmonie, Vienna Musikverein, and Carnegie Hall in New York. It was wonderful to devote a large amount of time to these works, and to see how our performances and interpretations developed over the weeks, and changed in different concert halls.
The yearly summer outdoor concert at the Waldbühne is always a lot of fun. Wonderful mood and energy from an audience of 19000!
- How many auditions had you taken before the Berlin Philharmonic?
Before Berlin, the main audition I took was for the Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster job (where I was from 2011 until 2015). Before that audition, I was doing a lot of international violin competitions.
- How was your audition day? How did it compare to other auditions you have taken?
It all happened very quickly. When I auditioned in Pittsburgh, I played a couple of auditions, as well as some guest weeks with the orchestra before I was offered the job. In Berlin, it was just one day. I was nervous. Luckily I had found out the previous day that I would be playing first. If I only found that out when I arrived at the hall, I think I would have been even more nervous!
I think there were a couple of things that helped me. First, I had played in the hall a few months earlier, performing Ein Heldenleben on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony. So I knew the space and the hall already a bit.
Secondly, I went into the audition with relatively little expectation or pressure.
I already had a wonderful job in Pittsburgh, and thought the audition in Berlin would be a great challenge and opportunity. But I really didn’t think I would get it. I just wanted to enjoy the opportunity to play in the great hall in Berlin and I wanted to do my very best.
- Was your experience taking an audition outside the United States what you expected? What were the differences compared to auditions for orchestras in the US?
In Berlin (and in many German orchestras), the entire orchestra listens to the audition, not just a small audition committee. So it is a bit intimidating to look out into the hall, and see the entire Berlin Phil sitting there. But on the other hand, one can think of it as more of a performance, rather than a test or exam.
- How did you feel after your first round? Did you expect to advance?
Everyone played Mozart Concerto in the first round. I played the 4th concerto. I was nervous and a bit tight. I felt I played all right, but not great. I remember enjoying playing with the pianist. I didn’t have an expectation either way after the first round. I knew there were many other outstanding candidates there at the audition, so I tried not to get my hopes up.
Once I passed and had to play Brahms Concerto in the second round, I decided to just go for it: to enjoy the opportunity and really put everything out there, rather than taking a cautious approach.
- What are some musical factors that you believe help set musicians apart at an audition?
In these times, the general technical level is very high. We have to accept that as a given at this point. However, I hear few candidates who have a special, personal sound, a sound which is beautiful and intriguing, that draws me in. I want to hear musicians who have a clear conception of style: candidates who play a different sound and approach for Mozart and for Brahms for example, and show me that they understand these composers.
- How did you prepare for the audition? Did you follow any kind of regimen?
For my Pittsburgh audition, I didn’t have much experience as a concertmaster or taking auditions, so I immersed myself in the concertmaster solos, listening to many recordings, studying scores, and finding as many teachers and concertmasters as I could to play for.
For the Berlin audition, I only got the invitation to the audition a few weeks before it took place. I had a busy schedule of other concerts in the weeks leading up to the audition, so I was forced to be very efficient in my practicing. I had to trust that I knew the repertoire (Mozart and Brahms Concertos, plus concertmaster solos). Luckily I had played all of it before. So I focused on getting in the best violin shape possible, and refining the musical statement I wanted to make. I couldn’t waste time rehashing the pieces and trying to reconstruct them from the bottom up!
- What advice can you offer to those on the audition circuit?
I believe that there is an obsession these days with orchestral excerpts that can be unhealthy. Of course, they are an important part of auditions. However, I see many young musicians obsessing over these little excerpts, working and reworking them for years, asking ‘what is the right way to play a particular excerpt for a particular orchestra’?
I believe that a more holistic approach is needed. Young musicians should use their time as students at conservatory to perfect their instrumental craft and to become more complete musicians. This means playing lots of chamber music. My primary preparation for being a concertmaster was the years I spent playing in a quartet at conservatory in Munich. Quartet playing taught me to think for myself, to be independent, to come up with a musical viewpoint and to defend it both intellectually and with my playing. It taught me to be aware of multiple voices at the same time: to lead and to follow simultaneously.
This means getting to know and playing as much of the orchestral repertoire as possible, not just the pieces that show up on excerpt lists! This means getting to know music outside of your own instrument’s repertoire. If you really know Mozart operas, you will play Mozart orchestral excerpts much better. This means studying the complete works, not just your own part. How can you play the famous Don Juan excerpt without knowing what this tone poem is about, and what the other instruments are playing around your part? Without listening to other Strauss tone poems or operas? We have such amazing resources today. On the internet, one can find the score and dozens of videos and recordings of a particular piece in seconds! Musicians can take advantage of this much more than they do.
Finally, one piece of information that I realized only after sitting on the other side, as a member of an audition committee. The jury wants you to do your best! They are not out to catch anyone, or to find some tiny mistake so that they can eliminate you. If they are, then you don’t want to join that particular group anyhow!
The committee truly wants to hear all the candidates at their best, showing their full capabilities and showing who they are as people and as artists.