Q & A with Harry Bennetts

Byline: Hannah Lee Tungate

Harry Bennetts has the perfect blend of talent and drive. The Sydney-born violinist may still be young at the age of 26, but he has forged a reputable career that has seen him garner success on the international stage and at home, performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. 

As part of our 12 Days of Extras series, Musica Viva's own Hannah Lee Tungate spoke with Harry about his journey from studying at the Australian National Academy of Music to the career he leads today, his favourite violin pieces to perform, his career influences, and his 2021 Sydney Morning Masters performance alongside Vatche Jambazian.

Tell us a bit about your journey from ANAM to now?

From finishing at ANAM up until the start of this COVID-19 period, my musical life took on an accelerated pace. Immediately after I left ANAM I joined the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a position I was fortunate enough to have ANAM facilitate for me. The Karajan Academy was the perfect learning curve into what it meant to be a professional musician and how to navigate a busy lifestyle. My previous experience of ‘busy’ I soon discovered wasn’t quite realistic, but I loved the new tempo at which my career was unfolding. I spent my two years at the Karajan Academy participating in the program there with lessons, chamber music and of course playing in the Berlin Philharmonic, whilst on the side of that maintaining a connection to the Australian music scene by travelling home every few months playing recitals and the odd concerto. After finishing up in Berlin I moved back to Australia and enjoyed a year untethered; freelancing as a guest orchestral musician, performing solo, and enjoying time playing chamber music with new and old friends. It was at this time I had my first professional engagements as a Guest Principal/ Concertmaster and collecting the experience I’d need to fill such a position on a permanent basis. In April 2019 I successfully auditioned for the position of Associate Concertmaster with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and am now a permanent member of the orchestra! 

Do you have a favourite violin piece that you like to perform? Who is your favourite composer? 

I don’t really have an answer to encapsulate this clearly. Almost every week I have a different composer I’m discovering or revisiting and it’s most often reflective of my state of mind. Right now, as I’m writing this blog entry I’m feeling nostalgia for the large scale orchestral works of the 20th century that have taken a hiatus from the concert stage due to social distancing requirements. In my recent classical searches on Spotify today you’ll find works like Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Dvorak’s New World Symphony – it’s a sound world I can’t wait to be a part of again! As for my favourite works for violin, Strauss’ Violin Sonata is up there, which I’m thrilled to be performing next year. Other favourites would include Brahms’ Violin Concerto, and his Violin Sonata No. 1, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1, the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and almost every one of Beethoven’s String Quartets.

Who have been your biggest influences in your career so far? 

My Violin teacher whilst I was at ANAM, Dr Robin Wilson, would have to be one of, if not the most important influence for me. Not only was he instrumental in forging the violinist that I am today, his musical knowledge, commitment to his students’ wellbeing, and guidance of ambition are qualities in his pedagogy I’ll always cherish. Alongside Robin, I’d probably say my friends and colleagues! It’s inspiring to see the people I love and care for succeed and furthermore have an insight into how they reach their goals. 

What is your routine before a performance? Do you follow any superstitions?

The pre-concert routine is something that I’d say most musicians, myself included, are always working to improve and refine. These days I try not to practise too much on the day of a performance. If a work still needs practising, there isn’t much on the day I can do about it! In the weeks leading up to a stressful performance, alongside practising the music, I like to practise mindfulness and visualisation to try and guide my nerves in a productive way. I’ll never not be nervous performing because I care about the music I’m playing, my colleagues I’m performing with and the audiences experience, so instead I try to guide my nerves to work in my favour. 

Can you describe your typical practice regimen?

In the month leading up to something like a recital I try to practise that repertoire for at least two hours a day alongside whatever else is going on in my musical life consecutively. As important as preparing that repertoire is, for me, it’s just as crucial to keep on top of basic facility, the nuts and bolts of playing the violin, so that I don’t waste precious time practising the basics in whatever programs I may have coming up.

What advice do you have for other young musicians looking to achieve this level of success?

I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason. Rather than letting failure knock you back, treat it as an opportunity to overcome your obstacles. I can’t think of many musicians who haven’t experienced failure or disappointment, all you can do is lick your wounds, pick yourself up, and question what went wrong and how you can fix it. Keeping love for music at the forefront of your mind whilst managing ambition is vital, for me it’s always been music before career. 

What has been your biggest challenge of 2020?

Motivation. Without concrete goals I’ve struggled to motivate myself to work. So exploring repertoire I love and haven’t necessarily had time to previously discover has been my saving grace. In a weird way this has been a blessing, without the hustle and bustle of daily life, exploring repertoire without the intention of performing it has offered a rare and calm insight. 

Which instrument would you love to be able to play? 

The cello! I love the sonorous quality of sound and the role it plays in chamber music. 

When you’re not playing violin, what are you doing? 

I’d love to say I have a deep passion for physics, glass blowing or extreme sports, but it’s not the case. Since moving back to Sydney I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with the outdoors, spending time at the beach and enjoying the sun. I love to cook, I grew up in a food-centric household, and cooking is always something I can count on to put a smile on my face, especially when holding a wine! 

Can you tell us a bit about the pieces you’ll be playing in your Morning Masters concert next year? 

I’ve taken this program as an opportunity to revisit repertoire I’ve performed and loved over the years. The Strauss Violin Sonata in particular is an all-time favourite of mine and a work I’ve always had a great time performing, the symphonic nature of the composition is a rarity for a work of this instrumentation. The music of Messiaen and Schubert are both favourites in my family home, my first memories hearing the works of these masters are from such a young age that I can’t recall a time I didn’t know of them, I’m thrilled to be performing this selection! 

Harry Bennetts will be performing with Vatche Jambazian on 7 July for Sydney Morning Masters.