While interviewing Benjamin Appl, Shikha Jain discovers some fun things about his musical journey and why he gave singing priority
The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) has started to enthrall western classical music aficionados once again. With the likes of Wagner, R Strauss, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler and Handel, the Spring 2018 Season will certainly ensure a resonating and memorable experience for the audience.
Benjamin Appl, baritone, described as ‘the current front-runner in the new generation of Lieder singers’ by Gramophone Magazine (UK), teamed up with Wit to perform Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, in a programme that also featured Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. Benjamin Appl started his training as a chorister at the Regensburger Domspatzen and continued his studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München. He graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where he now teaches German Lieder.
Tell us about your musical journey. Did you ever consider a career outside of music?
Yes, absolutely. After singing in a boys’ choir as a chorister and finishing school I started out as an apprentice in a bank and then graduated in business administration, and it was not obvious for many years that I would even become a musician. After studying economics for a while, I also wanted to study singing just for fun. But after a few years of doing both, I realised that I was spending more and more time on singing than on the actual studies of the profession in which I thought I would earn my money later in life. However, thinking back now, I really appreciate this unconventional pathway, as not only did I gain insight into another world and learn a lot about business, I can now truly appreciate how lucky I am to be a musician.
When did you start to take singing lessons, and realize that singing was going to be a career?
I always loved singing and had a singing teacher in my home town, who gave me some lessons from time to time. Also, being a part of a boys’ choir from a young age teaches you how to sight-read and gives you the basics of musicianship. But even later on, after starting to study at a music college, there was never a moment when I thought ‘Okay, now I will quit my life as a businessman and become a singer’. It has been more of a process, during which I was slowly shifting from one world into the other.
Tell us a little bit about Mahler’s work –
Mahler has always been one of the greatest composers. His music is so rich and emotionally engaging for me. His ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ are surely one of his masterpieces and were – also like his ‘Kindertotenlieder’ – very personal to him. He himself wrote the texts after falling madly in love with a soprano (who would not?) but his love was left unrequited. It is a very personal and emotional thing, when a composer expresses himself not just in music but also in words. For the performer it is a challenge to recognise and portray the transitions between reality and dreams in the poems, and to gauge the right level of emotional involvement, but this is exactly what makes it so wonderful to perform this music. It will be my first time performing with the Symphony Orchestra of India, so I cannot wait to meet the musicians and make gorgeous music together.
What is the most unusual place/venue you have performed at?
As a selected scholar of Yehudi Menuhin’s organisation Live Music Now, you are supposed to perform in unusual places or for people who don’t have easy access to classical concerts. I once was asked to perform in an afternoon of German Operetta Arias in a prison near Munich. We were all anxious beforehand about singing in front of prison inmates, but it was an important life lesson for us all, not to judge people in advance. They were a wonderful, open and appreciative audience and we all took a lot from the experience.
How have you seen your singing evolve through the years?
It is like with everything in life, when you do something you love over and over, you feel more comfortable with it. It’s all about experience; and of course, a male voice needs a bit longer to really grow. People say a baritone voice reaches maturity when the singer is around 35, so that’s where I am right now. By now I think I also know myself and my instrument well so that I can judge what is good for it and what I should avoid. This part of the profession provides interesting life-lessons!
Can you name the best piece of music you have been listening to lately (new or old)?
Oh dear, there are so many. It happens quite regularly that I listen to a new piece of music and think: this is the best. And then a few hours later I start to wonder if the one I just listened to might even beat the first one. Actually, I am also curious to watch a Bollywood movie and to experience the atmosphere in a cinema in India itself. Any recommendations???
Please share a few tips for aspiring performers –
Believe in yourself. Sometimes it is very hard as we get so many feedback from different sides that there is a danger of getting lost. When I work with younger singers in masterclasses, I often ask them about their strengths, but also about their weaknesses, which need working on. It is essential to know where we have to improve, and we should always be open and keen to fix issues or become better, but very often we never actually think about the aspects in which we excel. It is absolutely necessary to have a full picture and to know where we are better than others and why a promoter or conductor may employ us and not someone else. In difficult times (and believe me in this profession there are many, alongside the wonderful moments) it is the motor, which keeps us running and believing in ourselves.