Tuesday 28th January

There and Back Again: Violinist Benjamin Baker returns to NZ to make CSO debut

Having just recently toured the USA and returning again to the Big Apple soon, violinist Benjamin Baker is excited to be coming back to New Zealand to make his Christchurch Symphony Orchestra debut.

“Nothing compares to New Zealand and I definitely consider it to be home,” said Baker, who moved to the UK from Wellington in 1998 to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School. “I’m based in London and I have to be at this stage in my career, but New Zealand is the place where I get this particular feeling as I’m flying in, and even stronger when leaving. I feel very fortunate that music helps to bring me back every year.”

Along with working with the CSO, he will also be working with the English Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020.

Hailed by the New York Times for bringing “virtuosity, refinement and youthful exuberance” to his playing (2nd February, 2018), he will be performing Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the CSO on 29th February in the orchestra’s opening concert of 2020.

Baker admitted he wasn’t a huge fan of the concerto when he first encountered it, calling it a “phenomenal piece of violin wizardry in the best and worst ways.”

“I found it inaccessible at first.  My first musical loves drew me more towards more heart-on-the-sleeve musical writing; an Italian violin concerto is very open and gushing, [while] the Finnish constitution and approach is much more reserved.”

However, as he spent more time with it, he’s grown to love it more and more. “For me, there was a breakthrough in meeting people from that part of the world [with] their mindset and character, combined with visiting Finland for the first time. It helped me imagine and understand the piece in a new way, while also giving me the confidence to make it my own without compromising it. For me to walk on stage and play a piece, I have to love it to effectively and convincingly communicate it.” he said.

He suggested to listeners who haven’t heard the concerto before to just take a deep breath before it starts, shut their eyes, and “see how the sound affects you.”

“Sibelius was an incredible composer for orchestra. I still often find myself beguiled by Sibelius’ very unique musical language as he starts to paint his landscape.”

Baker started learning the violin at the age of three. Previously, his mother tried to introduce him to the piano, but he “didn’t take to it at all.”

“I told my parents I thought my piano teacher was a witch —although I now know she is a wonderful person!” he recalled. His love for the violin began when he first encountered it at a piano concert his mother took him to. “At the end, there was a violinist playing with the piano. I wandered to the front of the hall and sat at this girl’s feet, entranced, and then I kept nagging my parents that I wanted to play ‘that guitar thing’.”

Having performed in venues such as Wigmore Hall and with some of the most acclaimed orchestras in the world, such as the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela, which was made famous by Gustavo Dudamel, Baker said his most memorable performance experience was when, at the age of eight, he performed at a ‘Carols by Candlelight’  concert in Wellington in front of 10,000 to 25,000 people, just before he left for London.

Baker spends most of his time “either with my violin or on an aeroplane”, but when he has a moment to spare, he likes to get outside or indulge his interest in coffee, wine and cooking. He also does a lot of work with children’s charities and continues to sponsor a child in Senegal through World Vision. “That came about because my parents used to fundraise for them. When I was about five or six, I said I wanted to sponsor a child. They said, okay, great, but of course I didn’t have the means. My pocket money didn’t go to $30 a month so I started busking. By the time I was eight or nine, I was supporting three or four kids. Then, at 11, I started supporting them through charity concerts.”

He recently toured with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela, where he did some work with them in the country’s El Sistema programme. “It was one of those experiences I had no idea what to expect. The programme provides interactive music tutoring for at risk children aged 5 to 18.  It was hard to see a lot of the country because it was so inaccessible, due to security reasons and a lot of the country didn’t have power, but it was incredible to tour and contribute whatever I could to the passionate musical ecological system there. I was told there are a million kids in the El Sistema programme right now, despite the challenges facing the country. It was an unforgettable experience to be in a favela outside Caracas witnessing and sharing the joy that music brings to these kids.

“It’s easy for us —or maybe just me— to be immersed in the perfectionism that great music masterpieces demand; and while that does get me up in the morning, music can also be this phenomenal outlet. [It was amazing] to see these kids in a safe space, being creative and having fun in the midst of very tough living conditions. With enjoyment and creativity as a starting point, before they know it, they’re quite proficient and they can then decide whether to pursue music professionally or keep it as a hobby. It was an amazing reminder of the potential of music to spiritually enrich and connect people.”

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