The weather is finally warming up, but Canadian violinist Benjamin Bowman is already looking forward to fall. The start of the 2018/19 season will be the official beginning to Bowman’s new position as concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he will work with incoming music director – and fellow Canadian – Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s a gig that nearly every violinist dreams of and even Bowman himself says “it’s a little bit ridiculous to actually get that job.”
In anticipation of his post, Bowman joined the Met Orchestra in New York in a one-year contract as concertmaster throughout the 2017/18 season, which gave him and his fellow players a chance to get to know one another. “One could easily be intimidated by the rich history of such an organization,” Bowman admits, but only after some prodding. He is impressively cool-headed about starting his new job and he spoke about his first read with the orchestra as a comfortable – if not quite relaxing – experience. “Every single person there can play at an incredibly high level. It’s heaven.”
Bowman, 38, will be new to the first chair of the Met Orchestra’s violins, but his experience as concertmaster has been long and steady. He has held the post at the National Ballet Orchestra in Toronto and he is currently concertmaster at the American Ballet Theatre; he also spent more than 10 seasons as associate concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.
As a whole, it’s a competitive scene for musicians who vie for places in the world’s best orchestras, but the Met is in another tier entirely, and earning its concertmaster position is a remarkable achievement. “It is one of the top-notch jobs in the whole business,” says Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company.
Canadian operatic bass Robert Pomakov echoes Debus’s sentiments on working at the Met: “Just getting in the door is an accomplishment.” Pomakov and Bowman first met when they were both students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and they both began their work at the COC under its late general director Richard Bradshaw. Pomakov, who has sung on the Met stages for nearly 10 seasons, understands well this milestone in Bowman’s career. “[The Met] is not a stepping stone, it’s an arrival point.”
It was at Curtis where Bowman first discovered the fun of playing opera. “I dug it, I thought it was great,” he recalls. The members of an opera orchestra, often playing invisibly from the unfortunately named “pit” (or “orchestra ditch,” as the late Victor Borge cheekily suggested it should be called), relinquish a good deal of the spotlight. Compared with a symphony orchestra, which takes centre stage, opera orchestras spend more time accompanying singers.
And for Bowman, that’s all right. “I think it’s kind of a lost art,” he says of being an accompanist. “I know that to be a good and sensitive accompanist is not just a strength when you’re playing that role, but when you’re playing any role.”
That bit of musical wisdom is fitting of someone like Bowman, who is a passionate player of chamber music outside of his work in large ensembles. Great chamber players are essentially musical conversationalists, masters of knowing when to lead and when to follow. Like the players of an opera orchestra, they trade the spotlight for a more fluid role as a collaborator, or even more accurately, a storyteller. Debus, who has conducted orchestras of all kinds, finds that the players best suited to opera orchestras are the ones who find value in storytelling. “If you’re not really interested in that, it’s difficult to find pleasure in an opera orchestra.” But for Debus – like Bowman, evidently – “it’s easy to get hooked.”
In fact, it was during a particularly industrious period of honing his chamber-music skills that Bowman’s introduction to opera grew serious. Shortly after his postgraduate move to Toronto, Bowman and three colleagues busked for the Saturday morning crowds at St. Lawrence Market. Armed with “the ultimate gig book,” a collection of classical-music arrangements for string quartet, the players took advantage of their ever-changing crowds to play a huge range of repertoire, from standards by Beethoven and Haydn to well-known hits like Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
Lighthearted as it may have appeared, Bowman and his fellow players were racking up invaluable hours playing chamber music. They were honing their craft as collaborators, and just as importantly, they were learning to understand their audiences.
Among the market crowds was Richard Bradshaw, who introduced himself to Bowman and invited him to see the COC’s 2003 production of Janacek’s Jenufa. “I was just completely blown away by it,” Bowman says. Soon after, Bradshaw invited Bowman to play with the COC Orchestra, “and so I did.”
Bradshaw left his legacy not just in his conducting, but in the building of the COC’s current Toronto home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The man was a formidable and ambitious figure in Toronto’s musical scene, famed for his large personality and unrelenting musical standards. “[Bradshaw] only wanted musicians who had something to say, who took big risks in order to do it,” Pomakov says. “That’s what he would have seen in Ben.”
Bowman now steps into his role at the Metropolitan Opera armed with major operatic influences – such as Bradshaw – and significant experience leading large groups of musicians. And only after exhaustive studying did Bowman feel ready to lead an orchestra such as the Met’s, with all its history – they’ve been playing Puccini for more than 100 years, after all. “How can I come in and lead them? I have to be so utterly prepared that I’m ready for absolutely anything to happen.”
The best way – maybe the only way – to walk into an institution like the Metropolitan Opera is with a healthy dose of reverence. “He naturally wants to do the right thing when it comes to music,” Pomakov says of Bowman. “He really respects the [Met’s] history and he respects the people who have walked through that door.”
There’s a palpable excitement in the air as today’s opera lovers await the official beginning of Nézet-Séguin’s tenure as the Met’s music director. His infectious energy spills generously into the orchestra pit and onto the stage, and he certainly represents some much-needed sunshine following a dreary season of unsettling press for the New York company. Bowman, youthful in his passion for making music, is part of that light on the horizon.
Bowman’s respect for excellent music-making and his raw talent as a violinist (“his amazing talents are so undeniable,” Debus says) have certainly taken him far. The clincher, though, is his natural ability to lead. As Pomakov describes, it, Bowman is no ordinary violinist. “I can only see him being a concertmaster.”
“I feel incredibly lucky to be working with the musicians of the Met,” Bowman says. “And I’m excited to see what the future holds.”