Benjamin Baker, violinist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was born in Wellington, New Zealand and my Mum first brought music into my life when she took me to a piano lesson, which she had learnt as a child and still played for fun. I didn’t think this was a good idea though, and quickly decided that my piano teacher was a witch! As a last effort, she took me to a piano class-concert which happened to have one violinist playing with a pianist at the end. I have to take my parents’ word for this as I was only 3 at the time, but I apparently wandered up from the back of the hall and sat at this girl’s feet, transfixed by the sound of the instrument. I then proceeded to nag my parents for several weeks afterwards that I wanted to play “that guitar thing”.

One of my parents’ favourite classical CDs was Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons and he quickly became my first violin idol. When I was seven, he came to Wellington on tour and my parents managed to arrange permission for me to go backstage afterwards and meet him, with my violin in hand. I still remember the moment he suggested I get my violin out and play something. I happened to be learning the first movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto at the time, so I started, he joined in, and we played the rest of the movement together; a dream come true for 7-year-old me! As we finished he commented, “Mate, you’ve got f***ing good rhythm!” (to which my parents’ eyebrows shot into their hairline) and suggested that I should think about applying to The Yehudi Menuhin School where he had studied. Just 18 months later my parents, my sister and I moved to the UK for me to take up a scholarship there.

The path as a young musician seems to be a long and twisty one, and I feel very fortunate to have had many incredible teachers and mentors who continue to inspire me. This includes Natasha Boyarsky, Felix Andrievsky, Miriam Fried, Donald Weilerstein, Pamela Frank, Alexander Janiczek, David Watkin, and so very many others!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

One of the privileges I love about being a musician is the opportunity to travel and connect with people from many different cultures and walks of life. I relish these experiences and can’t help but throw myself in wholeheartedly, eager to hear and learn about every person and place I come into contact with.

While it is a source of energy and inspires me, this constant travelling became a challenge in itself. The concept of “what/where is home?” became increasingly difficult to keep sight of and after a few years of touring life, often couldn’t be tied to an address or single country. I consider myself an introvert, so rather than the travel itself, the often hyper social part of being a musician on the road threatened to wear me out.

While the definition of ‘home’ often has to be flexible and abstract for musicians, I learnt that keeping a closer eye on this was necessary for me to keep a balance within myself, and keep these opportunities for social connection a positive force in my life. This clearer view helped me to continue growing as a person and be fully present through the wonderfully diverse and peripatetic selection of experiences and opportunities that come with being a musician.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I find it hard to listen back to my previous recordings/concerts, but when I do, I am happy that everything I’ve released so far still feels like an accurate snapshot of where I was as an artist at that point in time. In 2021 I released “1942”, the first disc with my regular duo partner Daniel Lebhardt and Delphian Records, this particularly stands out as a recent highlight I’m proud of. That said, I’m most looking forward to the next performances and recordings as I continue to mature as an artist, and as a person.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

This is a tricky one. I think it might be too early to tell!

I enjoy the process of working on everything I perform; particularly the challenge of deciphering and interpreting the communicative opportunities and power within each piece.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

One of the biggest sources of energy and inspiration in the last year has come from the launch of a new annual chamber music festival I’ve been working to start in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was an unbelievable feeling to see a long-term dream come to fruition for the first time in October 2021, while also being a huge challenge and intimidating learning curve over the last few years!

Further away from music though, I love to get outdoors whenever possible and climb a hill if there’s one available. It’s important for me to get a sense of where I am, even if that just means walking around the block!

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It’s often focussed around long-term projects that have been in the pipeline a while.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

My favourite concert hall would have to be the Wigmore Hall, but some of my most memorable concert experiences have also been in remote or unusual venues off the beaten track. This ranges from a recent experience at a High School in Elmhurst, Queens, to small towns in Argentina and Colombia. I find it fascinating playing to people who haven’t necessarily heard classical music before and an interesting challenge introducing and sharing this music with them in as open-minded and accessible way as possible. It’s constantly fascinating seeing and hearing about their reaction to it, and keeps my perspective fresh too.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

The unique nature of classical music to my mind is that it places a challenge on the listener as well as the performer to engage and connect with it. As a result, I tend to wonder about how we can prepare new listeners for this, while increasing the opportunities to engage with this music for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Much of the music I love at the moment, took me several listens to understand when I first encountered it. Stravinsky supposedly didn’t pass judgement on a new piece before hearing it five times. With the pace of our lives in the modern world I often find it a challenge to have this much patience, but more often than not it’s well worth it!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing a duo concert in the Wigmore Hall’s Online festival in June 2020 with the wonderful violist and friend, Timothy Ridout. To be one of the first live-concerts after the first lockdown in the UK was an overwhelming honour, while also being an other-worldly experience playing to an almost empty Wigmore with only John Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore on one side, and a BBC presenter on the other. We both found the experience to be unlike anything else, and rather than a Green Room filled with friends afterwards, both our phones were blowing up!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be able to share, communicate and inspire through live performance, and build a platform to enable this to continue as a lifelong pursuit.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Be curious and ask lots of questions of yourself, and from those you respect around you.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

The intersection point between artistry and building a career.

What is your most treasured possession?

Friendships. Not really a possession, I realise. The violin I play on generous loan is of course most important to me, but the rest of my life has to fit into a suitcase which tends to keep a degree of minimalism to my possessions for now.

What is your present state of mind?

Energised and just a little overwhelmed by the range and volume of different opportunities and challenges I’m working on at the moment.

Benjamin Baker performs ‘Light the Lights’ with Sean Shibe and Gandini Juggling at East Neuk Festival, Bowhouse, Anstruther, on 1 July 2022, More information

Since winning 1st Prize at the 2016 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York and 3rd Prize at the Michael Hill Competition in New Zealand in 2017 Benjamin Baker has established a strong international presence.

Described by the New York Times as bringing ‘virtuosity, refinement and youthful exuberance’ to his debut at Merkin Concert Hall he is much sought after as soloist and chamber musician.  

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Photograph by Kaupo Kikkas