“Noble, singing, beautiful” – those were three characteristics of the cello that the 23-year-old Benjamin Kruithof immediately comes up with at my prompting. He has just won the 2022 George Enescu Cello Competition, held in the splendid surroundings of the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest. What was the journey like leading up to his ultimate success on the night of September 8, I wonder. 

In May of this year, there was an inaugural online round involving a selection of pieces from a prescribed list. “I had just two days working very intensively in order to put together a video programme. On the final day we actually went right up to midnight. Luckily, I had friends who like me are studying at the Berlin University of the Arts and who helped me with this project, and that included the technical side of things. Many of them had already done various competitions, so they were able to draw on their own experiences for me.”

Even so, Kruithof had a busy time of things this summer, not least because he had already arranged to play various concerts and had initially been in two minds about entering the Enescu competition. “But early on, one of my teachers, Maria Kliegel, told me it was a good idea, if only to provide a necessary challenge to myself.” When asked about the importance of such international contests, Kruithof readily concedes: “Some people are just made for competitions, and some just don’t need them at all. Luck is in any case the magic element, and that is often underestimated. What counts is having a goal in front of you and making the most of the opportunities you are given.” 

Benjamin Kruithof, Tito Muñoz and the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra,
© Alex Damian

Getting through to the final of any competition is a tortuous process at the best of times. After the online phase the total entry of 26 cellists with an average age of 25 was whittled down to 11 semi-finalists. “I found this stage very long and challenging,” Kruithof admits. “One of the required pieces was Enescu’s Sonata no. 2 in C major. It is not only technically very difficult, I had also never played it before!” I ask him about his choice of concerto for the final. He did contemplate playing Enescu’s Symphonie Concertante, still a surprisingly neglected work in the cello repertory given its intensely lyrical vein and stream of opulent melodies, though it was selected by one of the other finalists. “I first saw the score of the Dvořák when I was fifteen, and I was immediately hooked.” Watching him online perform the Cello Concerto with the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz, Principal Conductor of The Phoenix Symphony in Arizona, I was struck by the freshness of his approach and the dramatic urgency he found in the piece. It was less expansive and more arresting than many another reading. “Yes, I like the drama that is there, but who knows whether I might find more majesty and grandeur later in my career. When you’re young, you see things from a rather different angle.”

I want to know how he got on with his conductor. “I had never met him before and hadn’t played with this particular orchestra before either, so I was a little apprehensive,” Kruithof admits. “We had a 45-minute run-through and then a general rehearsal of under an hour.” However, despite the limited available time, Muñoz put Kruithof completely at ease, telling his soloist: “You know the piece, so there’s nothing that you need worry about.” Combined with an orchestra that was genuinely supportive, Kruithof found this boosted his confidence, an experience shared by the other two finalists with whom he had a very friendly relationship throughout the competition. In Kruithof’s case, I noted in particular the regular eye contact he maintained with Muñoz during his concerto performance. You felt that here was a partnership of equals, moving together on a similar wavelength.

Benjamin Kruithof
© Alex Damian

Looking back on the final itself, Kruithof values the real sense of collaboration with the conductor and orchestra he experienced on the night. “But taking down stress levels before a performance is just as important as making sure that everything runs smoothly once you are on stage together,” he says.  So I ask him about the way he manages stress in general. Kruithof actually enjoys every physical encounter with an audience, and that is in itself an advantage. Yet even though he has no special rituals ahead of an appearance, he acknowledges the need to think carefully about aspects of mental preparation. He reveals that he was once at a concert given by Grigory Sokolov in Amsterdam and watched the way he walked onto the platform. “He was totally relaxed. You could see it in the way he let his right arm hang down without any feeling of tension in his body.” Does he have any other tricks up his sleeve when it comes to relaxation, I wonder. Kruithof believes that sleeping in the afternoon before any concert always helps. “But,” he continues, while holding up a packet of herbal tea infusions, “this is what really calms me down. My favourite is ginger and lemon, but I’ve also tried chamomile.”

What he also did ahead of the competition finals was to delete all his social media accounts, choosing to remain as isolated as possible from everything else that was going on around him. That meant refraining from listening to any of the other competitors. Additionally, he benefited from having his father there with him in Bucharest, the time spent together on other matters being a useful distraction. “We explored different coffee shops and discussed our next mountain bike trips.”

His father is a viola player (and his mother a violinist), and I am curious to know why he didn’t pursue either of the two instruments his parents play. “Viola lessons with my dad never worked out,” Kruithof explains. “He was just too nice to me. There was no pressure.” Though he decided at the age of eleven that the cello was the right instrument for him, he was still only practising half an hour a day. Until, that is, his father enrolled him in a Young Talent Class in Maastricht, where the practice regime was gradually intensified up to the point where he was spending three hours a day on the cello. And then came the useful kind of pressure, the kind which has less to do with stress and much more to do with setting goals. One of the first was being entered for the Young Tchaikovsky Competition in 2014. However, when he and his father reached the Russian border, there was a problem with his father’s passport and the authorities then cancelled their visas. That mishap merely spurred him on.

Benjamin Kruithof
© Alex Damian

Through this motivation, coupled with having superb teachers, including Maria Kliegel in Cologne, herself a pupil of the great János Starker, to inspire him, he has since become a veteran of other competitions, notching up a series of prizes in the process, including at the Cello Biennale Competition in Amsterdam. First prizes in major competitions are often a springboard to a successful career, and I quiz him about his plans for the future. The young musician, who enjoys playing chamber music as much as performing concertos, reveals: “I have upcoming dates in my diary for Amsterdam this autumn, and later in the season in Berlin and Dortmund. Next year I’ll be appearing at the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival.” There’s something else that intrigues me too and I ask about the first CD he made back in 2020 with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie Herford. Entitled Russian Mood, it features a number of short works for cello and orchestra from the Russian repertory. “Many of my teachers have themselves been influenced by this music or have Russian connections.” And what of future recording projects? “I have another CD coming out next year, but this will focus entirely on pieces for cello and piano accompaniment.” And the pieces themselves? “Ah,” he says a little coyly, “you’ll have to wait to find out.”

A favourite question put to interviewees in the business world is: “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?” I apply the same method in the case of Kruithof. “I think it’s all about balance,” he states. “I still plan to be with that one over there,” and he gestures in the direction of his 18th-century Guadagnini instrument, loaned to him by the Berlin University of the Arts. “But the roles might be different. A mixture of a solo career and working with others to perform chamber music, or even a position in a symphony orchestra. Doing several things simultaneously strikes me as a good combination.” And then he adds, “Perhaps even some teaching.” He feels strongly that having a variety of interests can only be beneficial in forming a well-rounded human being. As such, these include doing as much sport as time allows. His girlfriend has already admonished him not to practise after eight o’clock in the evening. It seems as though this highly talented young man has got his head screwed on in the right way.

This article was sponsored by the George Enescu International Competition.