University Musical Society welcomes the Berlin Philharmonic, featuring Noah Bendix-Balgley.
Carnegie Hall in New York City was the first of five stops for this season’s American performance tour by the Berlin Philharmonic, which moves on to Ann Arbor appearances Friday-Saturday evenings, Nov. 18-19.
The Michigan visit is hosted by the University Musical Society and features first concertmaster and klezmer composer Noah Bendix-Balgley.
The concertmaster, who grew up in North Carolina and has been noted for his solo and chamber music concerts, is enthusiastic that each Michigan evening is offering a different program. Friday has Andrew Norman’s Unstuck, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F-Sharp Major. Saturday is devoted to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7.
“These programs are a real mix,” said the violinist, who tours internationally before numerous audiences, from France to China, throughout Europe and Asia. “Norman is a young American composer, and his piece is a nice opener, an exciting work that takes everything apart and puts it together. It is a showpiece for the orchestra.
“I’m playing the Mozart concerto, which is not played very often. It’s an early work, written when Mozart was 17. You can sense all the Mozart trademarks — beautiful melodies, character, operatic contrasts — and it’s a joy for me to play this.
“The second half of that program is the symphony by Erich Korngold, which is a very challenging, big piece. Korngold was an Austrian composer who immigrated into America when the Nazis came to power. He settled in Hollywood and established movie music, but his symphony is a very serious, classical work.”
On the second evening, there is only one piece, and it is described by Bendix-Balgley as chosen by conductor Kirill Petrenko, who likes to bring challenging works to life and be a champion for them. Every Mahler symphony, the concertmaster said, is a world of itself with a pool of orchestral sounds from humor to tragedy.
The orchestra’s previous appearance in Ann Arbor was in 2016, when the musicians set aside time to work with University of Michigan instrumental students.
“Many of us are doing master classes,” Bendix-Balgley said. “I’ll be doing a master class, and at least 10 of my colleagues are doing the same thing. It’s always nice to have a presence rather than just playing a concert and leaving the next day. Last time we were there, we did the same thing, and we’re making that more of our tours moving forward.”
Looking back at his career, Bendix-Balgley recalled studying the violin as a 4-year-old and then dreaming of a performance career by the time he turned 8. His undergraduate college studies were at Indiana University before entering graduate studies at a Munich conservatory.
When expressing an interest in joining the Berlin Philharmonic, he was concertmaster for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“I joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 2014,” he said. “For me, this was a dream job. I always looked at the Philharmonic as my ideal orchestra. When I saw the chance to audition for concertmaster, I was excited and wanted to try.
“Earlier, I spent five years in Munich. I had the language and enjoyed the musical life in Germany. At the time, I was 30 years old and thought why not give it a shot. It worked out.
“I live in Berlin, but I come back to the U.S. often. I have family there.”
Bendix-Balgley, married to violinist Shanshan Yao and the father of a young son, was introduced to klezmer by his father, Erik Bendix, a professional folk dance teacher. The violinist has gone on to perform with klezmer bands and compose his own klezmer piece.
“My dad became an expert in Eastern European folk dance and Yiddish dance,” the concertmaster explained. “I grew up around klezmer music. When I studied the violin, I also started to learn klezmer music.
“I’ve tried to keep that active. A few years ago, I had the idea to compose a klezmer piece (“Fidi-Fantazye”) for concerto. I did that while I was in Pittsburgh and since then played it all around America, Europe and Asia. That’s an important side of my personal and musical heritage.
“Jewish activities are mostly through my musical activities, playing Jewish music and klezmer music. I do celebrate Jewish holidays. I’ve looked up to the great Jewish violinists of the past — Jascha Heifitz, David Oistrakh and Mischa Elman.”
When he is not traveling to live audiences or making recordings, the violinist likes to spend time with family and hike.
“The orchestra and I are excited to come back to America,” said the instrumentalist, who performed for electronic audiences during the COVID lockdown. We were supposed to come back in 2020, but that had to be canceled. It’s important to us to have the connection to American audiences and play in the halls.
“Our new music director is Russian Jewish, and it’s really an exciting time with the orchestra. He’s bringing a lot of great ideas and energy. We’re happy to come to America and present that.”
The Berlin Philharmonic is performing at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, in Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University, Ann Arbor. Tickets start at $25. (734) 764-2538. ums.org.