PSO’s new concertmaster feels strong Jewish inspiration
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s new concertmaster, 27-year-old violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, has a marked air of sophistication and self-assurance — qualities vital to the man who, for the foreseeable future, will be the artistic spokesman for the orchestra, both within the group and to the outside community.
But when talking about his great-grandfather, Samuel J. Leventhal, another violinist, who played with the PSO under Victor Herbert as a 20-year-old in 1900, the excitement in his voice is palpable.
“I’d always known my mother’s grandfather was a violinist, and that at age 14, he went to Europe and studied with a number of famous violinists,” said Bendix-Balgley. “I knew that after he came back to the States, he went back to Hartford and became the concertmaster of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and the director of the German Chorale Society. But I hadn’t realized [he played in] Pittsburgh until after I was offered the position here.”
Like his great-grandfather, who graduated in 1899 from the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany and played under Brahms, Bendix-Balgley also lived and studied in Germany, earning his postgraduate Meisterklasse diploma for violin in 2008 from Hochschule für Musik und Theater Munich.
“For me, it’s an amazing story and an amazing parallel,” he said.
Bendix-Balgley was born in Asheville, N.C., and began playing violin when he was just 4 years old. When he was 9, he played in Switzerland for Lord Yehudi Menuhin, one of the many Jewish violinists he considers to be a role model.
In fact, it was the influence of such highly accomplished Jewish violinists that inspired Bendix-Balgley to celebrate becoming a bar mitzva in 1997 — the first such celebration on either side of his family for at least two generations, he said.
“I always felt a connection with the cultural aspect of Judaism,” said Bendix-Balgley, whose father, Erik Bendix, is a dancer specializing in Yiddish folk dance. “I used to listen to recordings of the great violinists of the past, most who happened to be Jewish. Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifetz. The list goes on and on. So, that was a tradition I really looked up to as a young violinist. My bar mitzva was a way of connecting with that past.”
Further connecting his Jewish heritage with his love for the violin, Bendix-Balgley even played his instrument at his bar mitzva celebration. Selections on that day included some klezmer, a genre he continues to pursue today, both as a performer and a composer.
He credits his father’s passion for Yiddish dance with engendering his own love for klezmer music.
“It was an influential part of my childhood,” Bendix-Balgley recalled. “I went to these dance workshops (taught by his father) as a child, and learned a lot of these tunes.”
Bendix-Balgley has played with world-renowned klezmer groups such as Brave Old World, and has taught klezmer violin at workshops in Europe and in the United States. But his interest in Jewish music extends beyond klezmer.
In March 2011, he performed at the Jewish Music Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, playing little-known works by Achron and other members of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music.
“I did a solo violin recital with piano,” Bendix-Balgley said of his part in the Bay Area Jewish Music Festival. “It was a really nice project. There is a whole school of Jewish composers from early 20th century St. Petersburg, Russia. They were inspired by the nationalist composers from the 1800s, like Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. They thought they would do something similar with Jewish music.”
Bendix-Balgley said he would love to play another recital of Jewish folk music from the St. Petersburg school. While he has no firm plans yet to do such a concert here, he said he has been in contact with Aron Zelkowicz, the director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.
“I know there is a good Jewish music festival here,” he said. “There is nothing specific yet, but I am definitely looking for ways to participate in that musical scene here. I am looking for ways to play both klezmer and classical Jewish music.”
Bendix-Balgley also plans to participate in the PSO’s Music for the Spirit series next spring at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“There are definitely ways I’ll be getting involved,” he said.
Bendix-Balgley earned a bachelor’s of music degree with highest distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2006. He has performed throughout Europe and North America, as well as in China, and has played in master classes for Gidon Kremer, Ida Haendel, Zakhar Bron, Joseph Silverstein, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Pamela Frank and Itzhak Perlman.
He has entered into a three-year contract with the PSO, but if he follows in the footsteps of predecessors Andres Cardenes and Fritz Siegal, who each held the position of concertmaster for 22 years, he could be calling Pittsburgh home for a long time to come.
“I really like the city,” said Bendix-Balgley, who arrived in Pittsburgh early last week. “It seems like a lot of interesting and exciting things are happening here, and the orchestra is a real gem.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)