Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concertmaster leaving for Berlin Philharmonic

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Halfway through his third season as the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Noah Bendix-Balgley will leave Pittsburgh to become the new first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world's most prestigious orchestras.

The violinist is expected to stay here for at least part of next season, in which he is scheduled to play in three featured performances. It is unknown when he will depart permanently for Berlin.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley, 29, became the PSO's concertmaster during the 2011-12 season. Last year, he started a four-year contract with the PSO that was set to expire after the 2016-17 season, said Louise Sciannameo, vice president of public affairs. The PSO's two previous concertmasters each served more than 20 years in the position.

Concertmasters, who are often among the highest-paid members of an orchestra, take on several roles, from leading the first violin section to performing solos and prompting the orchestra to tune. In addition, they can set an orchestra's tone and be its most recognized member.

The PSO recently helped Mr. Bendix-Balgley obtain a 1732 Bergonzi violin, which is believed to be worth more than $1 million, although details of the transaction were unclear. It is not known what will happen with the instrument.

The Asheville, N.C., native is also an artist lecturer at the Carnegie Mellon University school of music and regularly performs chamber music in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley, who lives Downtown, was invited to take an audition for the Berlin Philharmonic's first concertmaster position last summer, said music director Manfred Honeck. At the time, the violinist raised several questions, including whether he could, should, or even wanted to take the audition, Mr. Honeck said Friday.

"I told him it is an extremely prestigious job, but we would not like to lose him," Mr. Honeck said.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley's selection reflects well on the PSO, which identified his talent and helped his career, Mr. Honeck said. The concertmaster was hired when he was 27.

"It's a great thing for him. It's not good for us, but we like him and we are very happy that we [discovered] him," Mr. Honeck said. "We brought him somewhere out of nowhere."

"I am thrilled and humbled to have won the audition for first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. My happiness is tinged with sadness in leaving Pittsburgh," Mr. Bendix-Balgley said in a released statement. He could not be reached Friday.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley's hiring in 2011 was somewhat surprising, since he lacked the name recognition and experience other candidates had. He was a late addition to the applicant pool, when Mr. Honeck's son, Matthias, recommended him.

Still, he has established himself as a core part of the PSO. A concertmaster's playing must be matched by the right personality, strong communication skills and an ability to engage with the community, Mr. Honeck said.

"People really loved him here, because of his playing, but also because of his attitude, because of his humbleness," Mr. Honeck said.

Indeed, being the concertmaster of any major professional orchestra demands a high standard of technical prowess and musicality. That would certainly be the case for the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. Led by artistic director Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra is considered one of the world's best. Its website lists two other first concertmasters. Mr. Bendix-Balgley replaces Guy Braunstein, who left the Berlin Philharmonic last year.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley was not one of the PSO's five most compensated musicians in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to a 990 form for that period. A more recent 990 is not available. The previous concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, was the top-paid musician in the 2009-10 fiscal year, at more than $300,000.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley graduated from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and the Munich Hochschule. He is a laureate of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and has won prizes at the Long-Thibaud International Competition and the Vibrarte International Music Competition, both in Paris, and the 14th International Violin Competition in Fermo, Italy.

Depending on candidates, the selection process to replace him could take one year or a few years, Mr. Honeck said. It is unclear who would fill in during the interim.

"One thing you can be sure, we will have the next Noah here," Mr. Honeck said.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

First Published February 14, 2014 1:10 PM

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