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What's it like to be concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera?

Robert Rowat

"I’m often asked what a concertmaster does," reflects violinist Benjamin Bowman. "Other than to say that we are meant to tune the orchestra and to lead, I would add that we are meant to be open, to listen and channel. This really requires experiences — the wider the net cast, the better."

Bowman was recently confirmed as co-concertmaster of the Metroplitan Opera Orchestra in New York, a job he's been doing on a trial basis since last September. Due to the volume of performances at the Met, he shares the position with David Chan.

When we spoke to Bowman recently, he described his career to this point as "a zig-zag of ensembles big and small, personal victories and defeats, [from] playing on the streets for cash to performing in the great halls of the world." For 10 years, Bowman was associate concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company (he describes then music director Richard Bradshaw as "an exceptional person, a visceral artist") in addition to playing lots of chamber music in and around Toronto. More recently he was concertmaster of the American Ballet Theatre.

When it was announced recently that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would begin his music directorship at the Metropolitan Opera two years ahead of schedule, Bowman was officially offered the co-concertmaster job by Nézet-Séguin over lunch.

"Everything I have experienced has contributed to my preparation for this job," Bowman says. "I’ve learned to be humble and to listen, I’ve learned how to fully appreciate my colleagues and how to enjoy a beautifully executed phrase."

He agreed to answer our questions about his new job.

What has the past season been like for you, trying out the concertmaster job at the Met?

It has been incredible. This has been my dream job for as long as I can remember. I knew it was going to be special, but when I sat down for my first rehearsal (it was Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with James Levine conducting), the sound of the group literally made the hair on my neck stand up. There’s just so much talent and dedication oozing from all corners of this company. Jumping in and leading a group that has played much of its repertoire so regularly for well over 100 years is at first a very daunting task. It requires exceptional amounts of support, both from the group, and at home. So many hours of prep are challenging, especially with a young family (speaking of which, my family grew to four in October, just a couple of weeks into the performances!).

How do you and co-concertmaster Chan divide up the operas?

We share duties on operas that are part of the standard repertoire. As for dividing up the rest of the season, that will be determined in a sit-down sometime in the spring. Also, that meeting is a good chance for us to catch up since we rarely play together.

You just wrapped up Parsifal with Nézet-Séguin. How did that go?

Parsifal may be my favourite Wagner opera (at least right now), and this was a very special run. As a piece, it is utterly transcendental and as an orchestral experience it offers many opportunities to connect and exercise trust with one another, and with the conductor. It is a piece that collects all parts through purity of purpose — an excellent choice for Nézet-Séguin at this stage in his relationship with the company. We all felt we were a part of something extraordinary. And judging from the audiences’ responses, it truly was!

What's the feeling in the orchestra about Nézet-Séguin beginning his music directorship next season?

The entire company has a very positive atmosphere at the moment. This was something that we all needed, and in the wake of a troubling few months at the Met, it couldn’t have been timed in a better way. The feeling is that Yannick is both great and accessible as a person — two qualities that rarely go side by side in a maestro. We are all excited about the future with him, and relieved that his leadership is coming sooner than later.

Describe the experience in the orchestra pit at the Met when you've got a big Wagnerian orchestra crammed in there.

This orchestra has a real knack for playing Wagner. It’s massive, it’s loud — in a good way — but it’s also incredibly sensitive and aware playing. Even with this mass of bodies in the pit, there’s still a sense of fine chamber music, we’re all listening to the stage and to each other. It’s great to listen to these works from the audience, but to play them in this orchestra is something truly extraordinary.

What's the view like when you're in the pit at the Met?

My chair is so close to the pit wall that my elbow sometimes knocks against it when I play. I can really only ever see a few of the boxes directly in front of me while we’re playing. But of course I can see everything when I get on the podium to tune the orchestra! Also, the disadvantage of being against the wall is also my advantage when it comes to seeing the stage. I can often see a good amount of what is transpiring up there, something that helps my engagement with the story, but also helps me do a better job of following the singers.

Is there a significant difference between working as the concertmaster of an opera orchestra versus a symphony orchestra?

I’m sure there is, although my experience lies more in the realm of opera and ballet. I can say that whatever their challenges, symphony orchestras don’t often contend with staged and costumed singers, and balance and timing issues that accompany the logistics of them doing their job up there. I can also say that ballet often requires an especially elastic sense of time in the orchestra to accommodate all the flying around going on upstairs. I love the added dimension of being liaison between stage and orchestra. It’s a challenge, but when it clicks it is magical.

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