Young Artist Interview: Benjamin Baker

It is often said that you make your own success in life, but a little luck certainly always helps! I was seven when my first violin idol, Nigel Kennedy, performed in my hometown of Wellington during a tour of New Zealand.

I suppose it was a stroke of luck that my dad met Nigel Kennedy’s agent a few days before the concert and they arranged for me to meet him backstage after the concert. By then I’d been learning violin for a few years by the Suzuki Method. Nigel asked me to play something so I played the first violin part of the Bach Double Violin Concerto which I was learning at the time. Seemingly impressed, Nigel reached for his own violin and my solo performance became a duet with my idol. It was an incredible moment for me and a chance meeting that culminated in Nigel suggesting I apply to The Yehudi Menuhin School.

Letting me move halfway around the world on my own to go to boarding school at seven wasn’t something my parents could easily contemplate but they helped me send off an application and some tapes to the school. When I was offered a scholarship at the school the difficult decision to move 12,000 miles to UK seemed to have been made for us. We just moved as a family. After a hectic few months of concerts, fundraising and a whirlwind of packing my family and I boarded a plane for the UK. London felt huge and very crowded compared to New Zealand, and it took a while to acclimatise and settle in. When we left New Zealand there were just under 4 million people living there – less than half the number of people that live in the London area alone. However, NZ has more sheep – 80 million of them!

People often ask who my influences are, but they change so often it is hard to know what to answer. In my teens I was in love with the great violinists of the last century such as Menuhin, Milstein, Heifetz and Michael Rabin, but Oistrakh is the violinist who was the most formative influence for me growing up. Although my tastes have always been broad, the pool of different artists that inspire me has definitely grown even wider. Inspiration can come from great conductors and singers, or from other instrumentalists and the most recent addition to my list are ballet dancers.

In August 2015, I had the incredible experience of joining the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company on tour performing Les Lutins by Johan Kobborg. Performing on stage with such talented dancers is inspiring in itself but also just being a part of the company for six weeks was a great privilege. Witnessing the dancers’ dedication to their art through sweat, exhaustion and time pressure was very affecting; such passion and dedication reminded me of what drove me to become a musician. I was so immersed and fascinated by ballet that I wanted to learn about it myself. I couldn’t believe my luck when the incredible and legendary ballerina Gillian Murphy, who was on tour with RNZB as their Principal Guest Artist, offered to give me some one-on-one lessons to teach me the basics. Learning even the most basic of the basics from such a world-class dancer was quite overwhelming and as I now know first hand, nothing in ballet comes easily. We had quite a laugh together when I tried to point my feet for the first time and found that my feet didn’t know how to move in that direction! After a few lessons, however, I began to understand some of the different techniques and what the dancers were aiming for with each one, even though I could barely do it myself of course! The RNZB are such a friendly company that the dancers invited me to join in with their company class a few times. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life; walking into the studio with 35 professional dancers and then trying to follow them in the first 45mins of their morning class. For them it was the beginning of their warm up for the day, for me it was like an entire day’s intense exercise and concentration packed into the first hour of the morning. After a week my body was very sore and in places that I didn’t know muscles existed. I had always admired ballet but that experience gave me a completely new understanding and insight into the wonderful world and art-form that ballet encompasses. Talking to incredible artists like Gillian Murphy and the then Artistic Director, Ethan Stiefel, reinforced for me how interwoven our two creative worlds are and how inspiring it is to see great artists at work, even, or perhaps especially, in a completely different art form.

This year it has been very exciting to see the release of my first album with Champs Hill Records, The Last Rose of Summer . On its release if went straight to number 22 in the Specialist Classical Charts and was the featured album of the week on Classic FM’s Drivetime show. It was amazing to hold in my hand the result of something that I started thinking about nearly two years previously.

The works I recorded are by Beethoven, Kreisler, Ernst and Strauss and are linked by the themes of youth, love and loss. Beethoven was just starting to lose his hearing when he wrote his Violin Sonata No. 2 in his late twenties; Kreisler describes his three stages of love in his collection of pieces, Three Old Viennese Dances; and Strauss’ wonderful Violin Sonata he wrote when he was the same age as me, and was inspired by a summer in Italy where he fell in love with, and was then separated from the woman whom he eventually married, Pauline de Ahna. The name for the album came from the Thomas Moore poem and Irish Air The Last Rose of Summer which Ernst based his virtuosic concert variations on.

Over the last few years I feel very honoured to have been awarded prizes from some very prestigious competitions including the WCOM Audience Prize, Windsor Festival International String Competition, Michael Hill International Violin Competition, The Royal Overseas League and also being selected for representation by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) which has made a huge difference to my musical life. However, what really fires me up is the opportunity to communicate wonderful music to an audience on a daily and weekly basis. I feel very lucky to have also had some unforgettable experiences recently including making my debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto with conductor Nicholas Collon in the Windsor Festival and making my full Wigmore Hall debut earlier this year as part of the YCAT Lunchtime Concert Series.

In the next few months I’m looking forward to being back in London at the Wigmore Hall for an evening recital on the 29th of September 2015 with the Kirckman Concert Society, and at lunchtime on the 1st of December 2015 as part of the YCAT Lunchtime Concert Series. It will be my first visit there with the violin I have just recently been lent, a beautiful 1709 Tononi which used to be played by Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet. With great music including Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel, Franck, Britten and Elgar, I can hardly wait!

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