Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Talking to historic bassoonist Benny Aghassi

Benny Aghassi (Courtesy Amsterdam Conservatory)
On April 25th 2020, I had the pleasure of talking to Benny Aghassi in Évora, Portugal. Born in Rehovot, Israel, in 1978, Benny Aghassi took recorder studies with Bracha Kol. When a student at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, he won the Woodwind Concerto Competition and the Early Music Competition. He graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where he studied recorder under Sébastien Marq and historic bassoon under Donna Agrell, completing a Master’s degree with Heiko ter Schegget at the Utrecht Conservatory. He currently plays with such orchestras as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Orchestra of the 18th century (Frans Brüggen), the Netherlands Bach Society, Academy of Ancient Music (Richard Egarr), B’Rock, Les Musiciens du Prince (Cecilia Bartoli) and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman). Today, he lives in The Hague and teaches historic bassoon at the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Bremen University of the Arts.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

BA: I didn’t grow up in a family of professional musicians, but we did hear classical music at home, my mum went to concerts of the Israel Philharmonic and my older siblings had piano lessons. The first thing that comes to mind is receiving a tape recorder, recording myself playing the recorder and then playing a second voice with it. That was my first experience of playing chamber music (with myself!) I didn’t have many recordings, but found an LP recording of Frans Brüggen playing Brandenburg Concerto No.4. I remember that listening to it was a mind-blowing experience for me. I also tried playing along with him, but could not understand why my recorder was pitched so much higher than his!

PH: So, as a child, you started with the recorder.

BA: Yes. Before one of her visits to Holland, my mum (who was Dutch...came to Israel at age 18) had bought me a green recorder.  By chance, at school a couple of days after that, someone came into our classroom to ask if anyone was interested in having recorder lessons. I said I was and that I had a recorder. So, that’s how it all started. I played in a recorder group at primary school. Somehow, I moved to the teacher’s teacher and to that teacher’s teacher and music was becoming central to my life. I studied with Bracha Kol. This was among the strongest learning experiences I have had. She introduced me to serious music-making. Another experience was the Early Music Workshop in Jerusalem, a place to meet like-minded people and discover repertoire; there, I spent hours every day photocopying music.

PH: So, did you plan on a musical career?

BA: No. I did not see myself as becoming a professional musician. Before my Israeli army service, I had applied to serve in the outstanding musicians’ unit and was accepted, but my sights were on studying medicine. All my high school grades and the psychometric exam were aimed at medical studies. However, after three years in the army, I decided to go away for a year to clear my mind and, because of my love of music, I went to Holland to study recorder with Sébastien Marq. One year there became two. Finishing my second year of recorder studies in Holland, I was confused and did not know where or what I should be studying. I still had this voice inside of me telling me to go back to Israel to study medicine. However, a big dream of mine had always been to spend time in India. I think it was connected to A.B.Yehoshua’s beautiful book “The Return from India”, which talks a lot about India but also about medicine. So, when I was still in Holland, I decided I should go to India for a few months. The experience of being there was very interesting because there I had a sense of  total freedom, a thing one never has as a musician: you always feel you need to practice this and read that...I was in India for four months (had no instruments with me and didn’t go with friends) basically, interested to see what would happen. It was a wonderful time of my life, but after about two or three weeks, I found myself going crazy without music. So, I went to take tabla lessons (not that I was so much into percussion) and bansuri lessons. I was constantly looking for music. With so much time there to think about life, I began to realize that what would happen was not so much my choice, rather, it seemed that music had chosen me! That feeling was very strong. On the other hand, I am very practical and could not see myself becoming a recorder teacher; I love teaching, but even more, I love making music on the concert platform - chamber music, but also orchestral music. So, I made two decisions: returning to Holland, I would continue with music studies but I would also start to play the bassoon and learn to build instruments. So, weighing 15 kilos less, I returned to Holland. Jacqueline Sorel, a recorder maker working in The Hague accepted me to learn instrument-making at her workshop. She also played Baroque bassoon and I could hire her instruments. Somehow, everything quickly fell into place: a week later, I met Donna Agrell, who became my bassoon teacher. Basically, from the moment I met Agrell, my life was changed because things had started happening so quickly. Studying with her, I finished my degree three years later, quickly finding a teaching position in Amsterdam and starting to work with various orchestras. After a year, I had to stop making instruments, as playing the dulcian, the Baroque- and Classical bassoons involved so much to do, learn and practise. And, yes, life had taken a totally different turn. 

PH: Have you played modern bassoon?

BA: Never. I was interested in it at the Early Music Workshop in Jerusalem, but I never really got into it. For many years, I was quite sorry about not having previously acquired modern bassoon technique. Now, I don’t see it as such a problem, because I find it very beautiful to play early music, as I do, looking at music chronologically from that perspective. As a recorder player, I have done a lot of Renaissance music in concert and my biggest interest has always been the 17th century. Also, on the recorder, you end up doing a lot of 18th century music, but still, most of my work is Classical - Mozart and Beethoven. In an orchestra, there are two bassoons, with more to do as a bassoonist in a Classical orchestra, then moving to later music - Brahms, Dvořák, now to French Romantics - Saint-Saëns and Gounod. If you see an instrument, such as a German Romantic instrument from around 1890, it already looks like a modern bassoon. It is not a really modern bassoon, but is getting close to it. My chronological approach is always from the direction of earlier music and never from the more modern. 

PH: So you don’t see your place in the modern orchestra.

BA: No. I could never imagine myself in a modern orchestra; actually, just once I played Poulenc with a modern orchestra - I was the only historic bassoonist. Thinking about it, the way fantastic musicians in a modern orchestra play is not that far from early music. I think that early music has had an influence on this. The only thing is that their instruments are far more stable, this meaning that you can end up having less skilled musicians in a modern orchestra still doing a really good job, with all notes in tune and the sound projecting well. But then, this still misses a “special touch”. In early music, I can’t imagine early music ensembles getting to a professional level without that “special touch”.

PH: Do you come across modern orchestras that embrace music in a historically informed manner?

BA: Yes. I’m quite positive about this development. For example, I see orchestras like the Zurich Opera House Orchestra, with whose concertmaster I work a lot (she plays Baroque violin; we run a festival there). She leads a totally modern group, but when they play music of Mozart or earlier, it is always on historic instruments. I find this impressive. Also, in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, they use different bows for music of the Classical period and earlier. So, the modern world is changing.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the movement for authentically performed early music?

BA: Well, for me, I have never had anything with which to compare early music. I see a lot of my students who started with the modern bassoon and also colleagues who come from the modern world. But I come from the recorder and the only thing I have known is the language of early music. The language of early music is quite interesting. I grew up very strongly in the Dutch school of early music but I now work a lot in Germany, in France and in England. Each of those countries has its own "language" of early music, despite the fact that all early music has a lot of connections to drama and to verbal texts. For me, it has been quite interesting to realize that not everybody has the same language of music-making. For example, when I was studying recorder at the Jerusalem Academy of Music during my army service (there were not a lot of people playing historic instruments), working, for example with a ‘cellist, I could not explain to him (back then, I didn’t have the tools to do so) how one played a basso continuo line in the Baroque style, with the variety of articulation offering in that period. After many years of experience, I now find it beautiful to see in more detail how we make music differently in different countries.

PH: You frequently play with the Netherlands Bach Society. Would you like to talk about this group?

BA: Yes. Sure. As a freelance musician, you end up working with many groups. The Netherlands Bach Society was one of the first groups that offered me ensemble opportunities. It’s a very “closed society”, with extremely nice people...very friendly, the players and staff are all very committed and it’s a real “institution”. It was founded in 1921 (next year, the NBS will celebrate its 100th anniversary!) in order to create a different approach to performing the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew Passion is a central part of Dutch culture. At Passiontide (the days leading up to Easter) much of the population of Holland goes to hear the St. Matthew Passion. One of the main versions used to be that of the Concertgebouw (much before the early music movement) There was a religious group that had the feeling that something was wrong aesthetically with the way the Concertgebouw performed Bach - in a very Romantic manner, with a large orchestra. The group wanted a different version, one which would be much simpler and more Calvinistic in approach. That was when the NBS was founded. From around the early ‘80s, Jos van Veldhoven took over as artistic director (he has now retired). He transformed the group into an early music ensemble, one of the first anywhere in the world. Actually, quite a lot of the members from then are still playing with the NBS! What I very much love about it is that everybody is treated as equal. (When I work with French groups, there is a very clear hierarchy: the conductor, who often owns the group, basically tells you what to do. He is in control. In some of the more extreme situations, you are not even to address him! In Germany, this is not as extreme, but it is still very clear that there is a hierarchy.) I am not saying that in Holland there is no hierarchy, but in Holland there is a strong feeling that all are equal and that continues to be what I so love about the NBS. It is not that everybody chooses to constantly voice opinions at rehearsals, but, even if you are in the last row of the orchestra and not playing the most important role, you can always stand up and disagree with the way something is being performed or to tell the conductor he is not being clear, etc. The NBS feels like a family and it is very democratic. What I like about being in it is that I really feel and hear it as a group of people playing together. It’s not about following each other or trying to please anybody; it’s very genuine music-making and that’s why it has become my number one group. I do, of course, play with other groups - there are groups that can provide me with 250 working days a year (the NBS offers about 80) - but there are still so many positive things about being a part of the NBS. Regarding the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All of Bach” project, about nine or ten years ago, Jos van Veldhoven came up with the idea of performing all of Bach’s music within ten years. There were many questions as to how and where we should perform the works, how we should record them, how we publicize the many questions. Regarding the question of recording, if you record in a studio, you can edit almost every bar. But we wanted our performances to be more natural. In fact, the level of performance has become so high that, basically, what you see on the “All of Bach” video films is the live performance. What happens now is that, when we do a cantata program, we perform three cantatas at one concert, with two or three solo organ pieces between them. We always perform cantatas in churches, the idea being that church music should be performed in a church and, whenever possible, with large organs. These organs are very interesting for the sound they give but very challenging when it comes to pitch: there are only very few historic organs still being used at the current standard pitch for early music. After each concert, we have about 45 minutes to correct small details in any of the six pieces - a singer singing a wrong word, a squeak from one of the wind instruments or a camera focusing on the wrong musicians, for example. What this means is that the final result is actually the live concert. For secular music, we use modern halls and galleries. Well, looking at the “All of Bach” project today, we are not going to complete it in ten years. However, since the beginning of it, I do feel that the performance level of the ensemble has risen a lot, largely due to the fact that you are required to get the performance right the first time. 

PH: This is no easy feat! 

BA: Absolutely not and it can land us in some very extreme situations. For example, we once did a very small project led by oboist Alfredo Bernardini. It was with single strings. Bach cantatas are often written in transposition, meaning, for example, being written in G-major for the strings and organ, but in F-major or even E-major for the winds. One problem here was that we had three cantatas to perform at the one concert - two in which instruments were transposed a tone apart and, in one, a minor third apart. This meant that the strings were playing at 465 Hz (a half-tone higher than modern pitch), then one cantata with Alfredo and me playing at 392 Hz (a minor 3rd lower than the rest) and one cantata played at 415 Hz (a tone lower than 465). This is complicated. However, that day we were recording them in a beautiful Amsterdam church. It happened to be extremely sunny and the sun was streaming through a window into the church. The organ, usually tuned to 465, rose in pitch to 470 Hz! Here you are doing an “All of Bach” recording, you have one chance, you have been playing at two different pitches and now the sun is raising the pitch even higher. But the group survived it. There are not many groups that would be flexible enough to adjust to such a situation and still perform on a high level. That is why I am really proud of the NBS. The ensemble is doing really well, especially in its performances of Bach’s music.

PH: Nowadays, you play with a number of consorts throughout Europe. Do you not miss doing solo performances? Or do you also solo?

BA: That’s a good question. I am surrounded by a lot of good friends who have made the choice to be soloists. I will give you an example: a very good friend of mine, mandolin artist Avi Avital and I served together in the Israeli army. For two years, we shared a small room and there we had many discussions on this subject. For him, it was very clear that he wanted to be a soloist and what he needed to do to make it happen. Every year in the Jerusalem Academy Music competitions, such as the concerto competition - Avi would win the string prize and I would win the wind section prize. So, I do have it in my DNA to be a soloist. But, as a bassoonist, I have always felt so much happier to be at the back of the ensemble and, by that, I don’t mean that I have a less important role. If I recollect my mother going to a concert of the Israel Philharmonic, she would come home saying “What a wonderful violin-, ‘cello-, piano soloist there was” or “The conductor was so inspiring.” But it would be very rare for her to come back saying “I loved the double bass solo”. What I am trying to say is that a low-pitch role is not less important, but the way one can write for the violin is much more elaborate and, also, the human ear is mostly drawn to the higher voices. If you attend a concert and the continuo player takes all the attention, it can actually be a problem! Because, if a continuo player does a really good job, he gives the rhythm, he gives the harmony, but he also makes the other instruments shine. And I have realized that my character fits into this concept. That is one part of it. The other part is that if you want to be a soloist, you need to work in a certain way: you need to always give interviews, to sell yourself to concert programmers and you need to work with always need to be at the front. That’s not my character. At the same time, because I do have the physical capacity to perform solos, I do that, but only when they are offered to me. 

PH: So, how do you work your solo-playing into your general performing schedule?

BA: The solo work is intermixed with my orchestral- and chamber music projects. For example, of the many concerts I do with the Netherlands Baroque Society, I have played some bassoon concertos with them and, of course, a lot of chamber music. There is always solo work. For example, I remember a concert in Antwerp where, after the whole orchestra had gone on stage, all the choir members and then the conductor, I went to the front of the stage and performed a work of Jacob van Eyck on the recorder, totally solo. There is also a beautiful summer festival in Switzerland in which I participate every year. It is always the same set-up - single strings, two oboes, bassoon and a very big continuo group - harpsichord, ‘cello, violone, harp and theorbo. There, we perform five concerts over two weeks, each program being different; in those, I play a lot of sonatas and concertos. Then there is B’Rock, a very successful Belgian ensemble in which I am involved; I sometimes play a concerto with them. So, I do solo work, but I am not the person initiating it. And I don’t initiate CD recordings of all this solo music. I am able to solo, and happy when solo work comes along. When not soloing, I find it challenging enough to be in an orchestra. Am involved in performing music from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century. Somehow, this is much more exciting to me.

PH: Do you still perform on the recorder?

BA: Yes. Something has changed a bit lately. For many years, I only played bassoon. In fact, many of my colleagues didn’t even know I played the recorder. But the “All of Bach” series has changed things: when there is a recorder part, I am the first to be asked to do it, providing there is no bassoon role in the work. Orchestras don’t offer a lot to recorder players, but, usually, someone in the ensemble can play the recorder. It is rare for an orchestra to hire outside recorder players. For example, we did an opera with René Jacobs. I was playing bassoon. He asked who played the recorder and two or three people said they did and were asked to double a violin here, an oboe there - he likes to find different colours. So, as a bassoonist, I now find myself playing more recorder parts, but it is very rare that I play only recorder in a program. I am happy to combine both instruments; as a bassoonist, it is really hard to stay in shape, to keep one’s muscles in good form. Because I have played the recorder from a very young age, and I know the instrument very well, I don’t need to spend hours and hours practicing it. That’s what makes it quite fun to combine it with playing bassoon. Actually lately, I have been playing more and more recorder. 

PH: Would you like to talk about the bassoons you have?

BA: I would need a few hours for that! Let's say I am not a collector. I have friends who own a lot of original instruments. Actually, I do also, the idea being to have the right instruments for almost everything I perform of all periods. It starts with the Renaissance and the early- and late 17th century. I have many kinds of dulcians. The bass dulcian is the most common, but sometimes you need the smaller ones - alto and tenor - for consort music. Pitch is always the main problem with them because, in most regions, pitch was quite high - around 465 Hz or 460 - but, somehow, in many countries, the standard pitch for Renaissance and early 17th century music is 440 Hz...I have never really understood why, to be honest. So, you need both set-ups - 440Hz and 465. There are some transitional instruments from Renaissance to Baroque, but then, Baroque music has different requirements: for a continuo line, you need an instrument that gives you the flexibility to blend with all the different instruments - the harpsichord, organ, viola da gamba, ‘cello and bass. But as you go later in time, you need an instrument that has a better tenor register, like for music of Rameau. In the high Baroque (1710 to 1750/60) instruments underwent a lot of changes. What this means is that for Baroque music I need an early Baroque bassoon and a later Baroque bassoon and I need a bassoon tuned to 392 or 400 Hz, say, for French opera (although most of the time we play at 415 Hz) but, in extreme situations, you need to use a 440 Hz Baroque bassoon. This doesn’t happen very often, but it still requires yet another instrument. Then we get to the Classical period and here, again, we have endless possibilities: you have the French instruments and the German instruments and you have instruments with five-, six-, seven-, nine-, eleven- and twelve keys. You need an instrument tuned to 430 Hz (Classical pitch) but sometimes you need to play at 435 or 438. So, I basically need to cover all those possibilities and then you get into the Romantics, where there are new changes and here you have the clear distinction between the French “basson” and the German “Fagott”. Well, I have many instruments at home but, to be honest, there are eight instruments which I mostly use - the two bass dulcians, the two Baroque bassoons and the Classical- and Romantic instruments. I probably have something like 30 instruments. And then, of course, I have recorders!

PH: Do you write about music?

BA: All the groups I play with employ musicologists who write concert notes. I sometimes supply them with some basic data and I also send some information to my students, but I am much busier with playing than with writing; musicology was never my strong side. 

PH: Do you edit?

BA: I used to edit music, but I don’t do that so much anymore. I can always ask a student to do it, but, also, each of the orchestras I play with has a librarian, which is a luxury. For example, with the Netherlands Bach Society, we recorded Cantata No.150, a complicated cantata because, originally, the strings should have played at 465 Hz and in B-minor and the bassoon at 392 Hz, playing in D-minor. To make things more complicated, we were playing in a church where the organ was at 440 Hz, which doesn’t suit either of those pitches. In addition, there were two other cantatas on the program that were not supposed to be in that kind of transposition. To cut the story short, I was playing two of the cantatas on a 440 Hz Baroque bassoon (the first time I had ever used it) - a bit of a strange instrument - playing at a difference of a half tone in one cantata, meaning that the orchestra was playing in B-minor at 440 and I was playing in C-minor at 415 Hz. Of course, I can transpose these parts myself, but I can also ask the librarian to convert the part from B-minor to C-minor for me. Back in the days of microfilm I did need to edit pieces, but that was many years ago. 

PH: What music is your personal focus at the current time?

BA: If I have nothing to practice, I always go back to the 17th century. For me, I find the early Baroque the most fascinating, music that saw the beginning of more idiomatic writing for instruments. Why I love it is that it is so simple, but, at the same time, so complicated, with phrases so simple but with the possibility of being so virtuosic. There is something that really attracts me both to the music, but also to the instrument itself, because, for me, the dulcian is the height of the historic bassoon: it is a very simple instrument - one piece of wood with two keys - but its potential sound is so rich, so vocal, with such a fine way of reflecting  text. I think that is why the Baroque bassoon never really “replaced” the dulcian, rather, they existed alongside each other. We even think that when Bach wrote “Fagott”, he still meant the dulcian and, when he wrote “Basson” or “Bassono”, he meant the new design of the bassoon, which is like a Baroque bassoon in four parts. And we see that in Spain the dulcian, only minimally changed, was used till the beginning of the 20th century! In comparison to the constant developments of the bassoon from the Baroque, through the Classical-, Romantic- to the modern bassoon, the dulcian has remained the same, because there was no way of improving it. It was already a perfect instrument in the 16th century. This is the instrument to which I will always go back and I also find it very challenging, because it is an advanced instrument, but at the same time, very primitive: for each fingering, you can play a third higher or lower with different air pressure. You really need to know what you want to hear on the instrument in order to play it really well in tune. And there is an endless original repertoire for the dulcian. In almost every book of sonatas for diverse instruments, there are specific pieces written for the dulcian - in his first book of pieces, Castello wrote five sonatas for it and four in the second. With the Academy of Ancient Music, we recorded the first volume of the Sonate Concertate of Castello and we are planning to record the second book this year; Fontana and Bartolomeo de Selma (the latter a dulcian player) also wrote for the instrument. Something I have heard (and which I need to double-check) is that the first sets of sonatas for solo instruments ever published in history were for dulcian with continuo; these were the nine sonatas of Giovanni Antonio Bertoli. (Of course, there are earlier sonatas but those are not written for one solo instrument.) It was such a popular instrument and there is still so much music written for it to discover.

PH: Which of all the bassoons is the most challenging?

BA: What for me demands the most practice is the Classical bassoon. It is very, very challenging, especially if you play 1st bassoon. (I find playing 2nd bassoon more comfortable.) To play 1st bassoon, you need to know all the voices of the weave and it is technically very demanding. I feel I need to be on as high a level as possible when working with fantastic groups. For example, I work with the orchestra for which Cecilia Bartoli is artistic director; we do a lot of Rossini, some Handel but a lot of later music. Cecilia is such a perfectionist...she never misses a note. So, as a bassoonist, I think that if she can sing so perfectly, I cannot afford a single note not to emerge or a note that doesn’t “speak”. 

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

BA: Sure. I have always taught recorders. Even as a kid, still in primary school, I would teach the younger children. Teaching has always come naturally to me. I have almost stopped teaching recorder but still hold some occasional recorder master classes. I really love teaching the bassoon. In one sense, it is a very technical instrument. Whenever a new student comes along, you always realize how many problems the instrument can have - keys that don’t close or keys that make a lot of noise, problems with the wood, etc. and these problems take a lot of time to solve. Then there is finding a set-up for reeds, to make a reed that works for you. The same reed might work well for you today but not tomorrow! The reed issue is a process that takes months, sometimes years to solve. It is not just the skill of making reeds because, technically, anyone can make a reed, but to make a reed that suits your physical ability is very challenging. Then there is how your own body addresses playing the instrument itself. In the playing of many wind instruments, we speak about support and breathing, but with the bassoon, if you don’t support, no sound comes out at all!  (Of course, for the piano, you need a good hand position, but you will always get a sound.) This is not as extreme as playing the cornet or brass instruments but, to play the bassoon, we double-reed players need a lot of physical ability and the physical ability a bassoonist needs is very different to that of a trumpet player. I always compare us to athletes: trumpet players are the 100-metre sprinters and we bassoonists are the marathon runners. It is tiring to play the bassoon. We sit in an orchestra pit to perform a Handel opera and are required to play endlessly for four hours without tiring or to manage well even if we are tired. As bassoonists, we need to have very flexible muscles, allowing us to play for long stretches. Because of that, I find teaching the bassoon really beautiful because, in lessons, I can hear how quickly the students develop and still, there is so much more to do. I also feel very lucky that all my students are working professionally...almost all...there is always an exception. When I was teaching recorder, trying to do the best I could, I was aware that most of the students would not end up as performers - they would probably teach or go on to other instruments, work as music therapists, etc. This, of course, is really not negative: I believe that whoever wants to study music should. Even in the academic world, I see most people work in other fields from what they have studied, perhaps except for medicine and law. You usually study something and then you find your way. So, what is beautiful with teaching bassoon is that I see my pupils replacing me, playing together with me or playing with top groups - the Bach Collegium Japan, the Academy of Ancient Music, etc. This makes me very proud. Nowadays, there are many more bassoonists because, in the past, it was not common for a good modern player to also play historic instruments. It is now the opposite - everybody is playing everything. Because of people like Sergio Azzolini, one of the only soloists who plays modern and historic bassoons, this practice has become more common. And there is enough work for everybody. I have been teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory for 11 years, and we never get to a full quota of bassoon students, which would mean six or seven students per class. It means that my students are very busy. Last year, I started teaching at the Bremen University of the Arts and this is very interesting for me. It means a lot of travel. There, they have a very different system of teaching and hierarchy is very strong in Germany. At the same time, education in Germany is free...almost free. There, I don’t have a professorship but a job contract and am not yet very involved in the school itself. Of course, I am very involved with the students. But with all the inconvenience of travelling there, I see the potential of teaching in Germany as it is so much easier for students to study there. The Bremen school facilities are really wonderful. The students come from all over to study there; this year, I have one from St. Petersburg, one from Holland (quite rare) and two German students.  At the Amsterdam Conservatory, I have students from France, Australia, Israel, one from Cuba and one from Russia. I really do love teaching there. I love the department and the teachers and it is a practical set-up. If you have a problem, you write to somebody and you will always get an answer with a solution. It’s wonderful. But education in Holland is getting more and more expensive: if you have a European bachelor’s degree you can’t do a second one unless you put out a lot of money. If you come from outside of Europe, your admission fee is four times as costly as for Europeans. I see how much more difficult it is going to be to attract students, especially from outside of Europe. I very much love teaching, but, interestingly, find it the most tiring of all. For me, standing on the Concertgebouw stage and playing a concerto is much easier than a day of teaching! Being with the students demands all your energy. At the end of a performing project, I go out with my colleagues for a glass of wine. At the end of a day of teaching, I can’t even talk! It is difficult to combine the teaching with my performance projects, as I am always traveling. (There are periods when I fly every second day). But I am trying to change that a little. However, the good thing about teaching semi-professionals is that you don’t need to be there to teach them every week. In extreme situations, I teach a block of lessons, meaning four consecutive days in one month, but I try to avoid that and prefer to go to teach them every two weeks and give double the lessons. That seems to work...we make it work.

PH: How is the present corona crisis affecting your work?

BA: Well, concerts have been cancelled, but I am presently teaching online two days a week. In the past, I could never have imagined doing that, but these are different times. It’s a bit difficult teaching music online, not seeing the students’ posture so well and with the problems of making reeds and adjusting them. But, because of teaching online, I am able to meet with students every week and it is nice to see their progress.  

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

BA: I find myself in the garden a lot. In Holland, we have a roof terrace and looking after the plants there takes a lot of time. I also enjoy reading and yoga. We have a holiday house in Portugal, where we are at the moment; to be honest, it’s the first time we have had time to spend in it and to enjoy the garden! We now start the day with juice made from oranges picked from our own tree, which is very nice. But, normally, my day consists of 20 hours of music! It’s all constantly about music...even dreaming about music! This also means all the organization around concerts, travel, etc. My partner has started a festival here in the beautiful national heritage city of Évora (this year, it will probably be cancelled), but it was held last year and the previous year, attracting a lot of interest. Most of the concerts were absolutely sold out! 

PH: Many thanks for your time, Benny, and for sharing your thoughts and so much interesting information.