Thursday 4th April
Strings Attached - An interview with violinist Benjamin Morrison
Originally published on Cityscape.co.nz
Cityscape talks to globe-trotting violin virtuoso Benjamin Morrison.
What sparked your passion to play the violin?
Two experiences stand out to me: the first when I was 10 years old. I had the opportunity to perform Albinoni's Adagio with orchestra and Robert Tait conducting. During the performance I felt a powerful desire to share the passion and emotions within the piece with the audience. The second was at 13 years old when I discovered the joy of chamber music and playing music together. I was a first-year student at Burnside High School and was put into an octet with seven other members all older and more experienced than I was. Seeing how much fun and love they had for music really inspired me and ignited my passion for being a part of a larger whole.
Being appointed to the Vienna Philharmonic’s (renowned as one of the world’s finest orchestras) 1st violin section is an amazing feat. How did you feel knowing that you were the first Kiwi to achieve that?
Although the reason I'm the only Kiwi in the orchestra could be put down to fairly mundane statistical reasons, I feel a sense of pride in knowing that Kiwis can punch above their weight. New Zealand provides many opportunities and has a very active cultural scene. I would love to see kids have the opportunity to be able to express themselves creatively and learn that the creative process also requires discipline and hard work. My first experience in the orchestra was remarkably unspectacular. During the rehearsals, the colleagues seemed quite reticent and calm. The performance was a completely different world, with every member giving it their all. The fearlessness and abandon with which the orchestra plays still inspires me to this day.
Who is your favourite composer and what is your go-to classical piece to perform?
It's quite tricky to pick just one composer out of the many genres, ages and styles. I love Bach for retrospection and solitude; Shostakovich for evil, despair and catharsis; Puccini for love, passion and melodrama; and Michael Jackson for dance, energy and groove. I guess the go-to piece would be the ones I'm currently working on: Korngold's Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's 8th Quartet and a New York tour with Beethoven's 3rd Symphony.
You’ve toured and performed globally. Where would you say has been your favourite location to perform?
Japan always has a special place in my heart. The Japanese are avid classical music lovers. This fact, coupled with their impeccable manners, makes for quite an atmosphere at concerts. Before the concert begins the audience is deadly silent, eagerly awaiting the performance. Their concert halls are fantastic, acoustically as well as aesthetically – their acoustics rival the best European halls. New York's Carnegie Hall is also a favourite; the buzz of New York is irreplaceable.
If you weren’t a violinist, what would be your next instrument of choice?
I've always been jealous of the pianist's choice of repertoire.
The most surreal moment in your career?
I recently auditioned for the concertmaster position in my orchestra and was fortunate to make it to the finals, which take place in the Vienna State Opera, playing solo with the Vienna Philharmonic. I felt overwhelmed and humbled at the opportunity to be able to make music in such a way with the orchestra and have a strong feeling of my colleagues' support. It was a surreal experience performing as a soloist with the orchestra I've been a tutti member of for so long.
What advice would you give to budding violinists or those wanting to pursue a musical career?
Stay open to all forms of art, explore the music you have a passion for, find inspiration in the creativity of others and events in your life. Music encompasses all emotion and you may dazzle audiences with technical pyrotechnics but with musicality you'll win their hearts. Learn to be critical of your playing and listen carefully to yourself, finding the most efficient way to improve. Don't be afraid to take risks; risk the nervosity of walking onto the stage and you may find you enjoy the exhilarating feeling of sharing music with people.
On Sundays, you’ll find me…
Grabbing a coffee from down the road, cleaning my apartment, and occasionally a morning concert or an opera performance at 6:30pm.
A successful musical journey is never a solo. Who has helped you along the way?
I'm very grateful for the professional coaching Vesa-Matti Leppänen gave me while I was studying at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. I remember Vesa giving me wonderful musical advice, as well as practical advice for handling nerves on stage. I am indebted to Vesa for putting me in contact with my former Professor, Yair Kless, in Graz, Austria, with whom I completed my Bachelor and Master studies. I must make mention of my first teacher, Stephen Larsen, who was an important mentor to me in my formative years and taught me to think critically about my violin playing; and Timothy Robb, my first violin teacher, who had a great deal of patience with me when I wasn't old enough to tie my shoelaces.
Do you have a favourite violin?
Currently I have two main performing instruments, the one built by my father, David Morrison, and a Gagliano built in 1770. My father picked up violin-making in the late '90s after always being so fascinated with the mystery surrounding a good sounding instrument. On my 21st birthday, he gifted me with an instrument he had made, and this instrument accompanied me to Europe. I've performed many concerts on this wonderful instrument, including my complete Bachelor and Master studies – I even won the first audition into the Philharmonic playing on my father's violin. I still play regularly in the Opera with this instrument and will always hold it dear. Last year I went on a search for an old violin, partly as an investment, and mainly for a violin that could stand up against the Stradivarius and other fantastic instruments in the orchestra. The search for a great violin led me to many violin dealers and ateliers in London, Germany and Austria. I must have tried over a hundred different instruments before finally finding the Gagliano. The sound is rich and complex, with an incredible projection that reaches to the very back of any concert hall.
Lamb & Hayward Masterworks: Triumph, 18th May, 7.30pm
Christchurch Town Hall
Image: Adela Frasineanu