After studying in Bloomington, Indiana and at the Munich Hochschule, American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley has been a winner of competitions at the highest level (the Long-Thibaud in 2008, the Queen Elisabeth in 2009). Appointed concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the age of 27, he arrived in Germany three years later to take on one of the most important positions in the orchestral world...

Noah Bendix-Balgley © Sebastian Hänel
Noah Bendix-Balgley
© Sebastian Hänel

How did you become first concertmaster with the Berliner Philharmoniker?

I was Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 2011 to 2015. In 2014, I heard that one of first Concertmaster positions in Berlin was open, and I applied, since I had always admired the style and sound of the Berliner Philharmoniker. I went to the audition without big expectations that I would get the position, but things went well and I got the job. I think one factor in my success at the audition was that I was able to play as if it were a concert, rather than an audition or test, since I didn’t expect it would actually work out!

What is the role of the first concertmaster within the orchestra?

The concertmaster is a leader among equals in the orchestra. I have to make sure things run smoothly in rehearsals, and I have to lead with my playing and my body movements, bringing the different sections of the orchestra together at crucial points in the music. As concertmaster, there is a constant give and take while playing, reacting to what is going on around you in the orchestra and initiating impulses that the other players can pick up on. 

How do you facilitate communication between the conductor and the orchestra?

I try to show what the conductor asks for with my playing. If anything is unclear, I speak to the conductor on behalf of my section or the orchestra. But most of the time, I am trying to give clarity through my playing and leading. 

Independently from the conductor’s musical vision, what initiatives can you take interpretation wise?  

I am making decisions about bowings for my section (and as a result for the strings), which has a big influence on phrasing and sound. Through my leading and through eye contact, I can establish communication between sections or players of the orchestra at crucial musical moments. 

An orchestra is a complex organism, with its own hierarchical structure between the different sections. How do you make sure that this hierarchical structure works smoothly without conflict? 

Though there are leadership positions within an orchestra, I think of the organism as a collection of equals. I feel the Berliner Philharmoniker is particularly egalitarian, both musically and also how the organization is run. 

It is important to respect the opinions and artistry of every single member of the orchestra. When addressing my section, I always refer to ‘We’, never to an individual player. And whenever possible, I try to resolve a musical problem with my playing and leadership, rather than my words. Of course, always being prepared and sounding good is the first step to gaining the trust and respect of your colleagues!

Is there one thing in the concert ritual that you would like to see changed?

I can’t stand the stigma against clapping between movements. It was not always that way, and if the audience has a desire to react by clapping, they should be able to do so without feeling out of place!