Susan L. Rife
Pianist Alessio Bax and violinist Benjamin Beilman have been friends and musical collaborators for many years, performing together in Seattle, Tuscany and Tokyo, among other places. They live a few blocks away in New York.
“We rehearse together, play together, travel together,” said Beilman, who studied at the Music Institute of Chicago, Curtis Institute of Music and Kronberg Academy and performed in concert halls around the world.
Bax, originally from Italy, Steinway artist and artistic director of the Incontri in Terra di Siena festival in Tuscany, is “a big foodie” who advises Beilman on which butcher and fishmonger to patronize.
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They are also a society of mutual admiration.
“He’s an incredible musician,” Beilman said of his collaborator. “He’s got a shimmery, shimmering touch and, of course, he can spin it big.”
Beilman’s Bax said, “He’s an exceptional musician and human being, which is very important. Making great music is wonderful, but you want to hear yourself and have a similar outlook on life. As a musician he has a very rare combination of being very thorough and always asking questions, very analytical in a way, but at the same time very natural.
On Friday, they will perform together in a concert of the Sarasota Concert Association’s Great Performers Series at the Riverview Performing Arts Center. Their program – the “Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor, Op. 36a” and Franck’s “Sonata in A major” – is, according to Beilman, “loosely built around the idea of friendship”.
Not that the composers were friends or even contemporaries. Cesar Franck was a Belgian composer who lived from 1822 to 1890, while Ferruccio Busoni was an Italian composer two generations younger. But they both composed in the romantic tradition, albeit from different directions.
Franck’s sonata is a well-known composition written as a wedding gift for virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaye. The violinist kept it in his repertoire for 40 years and was a champion of Franck’s music.
Bax and Beilman often present concerts that combine something well-known, like Franck’s sonata, with a lesser-known work. The Busoni is quite to their liking.
“It’s an incredibly monumental, witty and fierce piece that I found so captivating,” Beilman said. “It’s this incredible feeling of catharsis for us and for the public. It all starts in this troubled and very dark place. There is beautiful writing, a beautiful dialogue between the two instruments, a glimmer of hope and light alongside the darkness.
Bax described Busoni’s sonata as “a great work in three movements which are all connected. He manages to create this amazing journey from start to finish. I find it life changing with every performance. And the public feels the same. You really feel like you have so many different human experiences.
The two musicians weathered the worst of the pandemic in New York with different approaches. Beilman started running and learning to speak German, as well as mastering the art of home video recording and streaming. Bax, who lives with his pianist wife and seven-year-old daughter, has found himself structuring his days around his daughter’s schooling. But he was also able, in the summer of 2020, to resume concerts in Europe.
“I played sold-out gigs in France and Germany and came back to nothing in New York,” he said. “We managed to do what we could do.”
Last week, he performed at Carnegie Hall in front of a large audience. A positive point for concert life in the time of COVID: “It’s much quieter because no one dares to cough.”
Benjamin Beilman, violin and Alessio Bax, piano. Great Performers Series, Sarasota Concert Association. 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 25 at the Riverview Performing Arts Center, 1 Ram Way, Sarasota. Tickets $25-$50. 941-966-6161; scasarasota.org.