10 questions – Douglas Beilman
When did you begin to play the violin and how did that come about?
I started playing when I was eight in a class situation in the public schools – thank goodness they still had such a programme back then. I had told my father that I dearly wanted to learn the flute and I remember crying at the kitchen table when told it was to be the violin – you see he was desperate to have a family string quartet (never quite made it, though we did have a family trio…)
What inspired you to become a chamber musician?
Shortly after beginning private lessons when I was thirteen, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by the Tokyo String Quartet, and the ‘hook’ was set. From then on I read and played chamber music whenever I could. From the age of fourteen up to now I have always been in a string quartet – including separate groups at different times with my two siblings who played; my brother Greg who is now head of Surgery at Minneapolis General Hospital, and sister Liz who is assistant principal cello with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
What are the challenges of working in a string quartet?
It is decidedly not a challenge to be continually inspired by the great repertoire we play – that is a perpetual reward. And the engagement with audiences remains a constant positive. Certainly one of the challenges as an active touring ensemble is to keep that balance in our lives between our time away as performers and our lives at home. I am blessed with an understanding and amazing family who pick up the pieces when I am off for the longer haul.
What’s special about the role of 2nd violin in the ensemble?
The 2nd violin role requires one to be always on alert for the function you are fulfilling at the moment. After some years doing this one hopefully develops an instinct for the lightening quick changes necessary. There is also a tendency to bury additional harmonic voices in the inner voices to leave melodic instruments – usually the 1st violin – the freedom to ‘soar’ easily. But the resulting double stops can be quite demanding.
You came to New Zealand to take up the role of 2nd violin in 1989 – was that a big culture shock?
Initially it was. Certainly the offerings at the supermarket and restaurants were not close to San Francisco where I had been living – but you couldn’t say that now. Also the kiwi accent took some time to adjust to. But I have loved the New Zealand landscape from day one and I now would live nowhere else! Musically, New Zealand has always had a lot going on as well, and that is more and more the case.
What are some of your most memorable concerts or experiences with the Quartet?
Last year we played two concerts in Wichita, Kansas – it’s my home state and over twenty members of my family were able to be there. After all my years with the Quartet, it was extraordinarily satisfying to be able to play for my family. Our two concerts in Wigmore Hall in 2000 and 2005 were unique experiences in another way, given the history of that remarkable chamber music venue.
You play a Storioni violin which is on loan to the Quartet. How important is that instrument to you?
After playing this instrument for 21 years it’s irrelevant whether I own it – does anyone ever truly “own” one of these great Italian instruments? We attach ourselves to them and both instrument and player develop in some kind of magical synergy. It feels as if my “voice” is released through the instrument.
You’ve played a lot of contemporary music including New Zealand compositions – is that different from standard chamber repertoire?
In essence, there is no difference – every piece we play strives for its own inherent message and structure. Obviously with brand new works there is a strong likelihood that some will not fully meet the challenge. For us as performers, we attempt to give a new work as strong a launching as we can, without judging the work for as long as possible. And many new works have made very successful statements and have remained in our repertoire.
In recent performances of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, you’ve lead the ensemble as sole violinist – what have you enjoyed about that?
Getting to play so many divine melodies!
What do you do when you’re not rehearsing, performing, recording or teaching?
Laundry! No, seriously, my quest for balance is best served by spending time with my wife and children and enjoying mostly outdoor activities together. We’re mad-keen gardeners and unwind with a glass of wine strolling around the garden planning our next ten projects.