If you are a regular at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts you’ve probably noticed a lot of new faces on stage during the year just past and the current season.
Meet two of them, James (Jim) Benoit, the new PSO principal timpanist, and Dylan Naroff, first violin, who both joined the orchestra last year. I talked with the two over lunch recently.
For musicians, auditions are a fact of life: auditions for youth performance groups, auditions for acceptance to music schools, auditions for professional performance positions. Jim and Dylan both won their auditions for their positions. But that is just the first step for becoming a permanent employee of PSO.
The hiring process is not the same for every orchestra, Jim explained. Some are mandated by their own rules to fill a vacancy within a certain time. They have to give the position to one of those who auditioned.
“This orchestra takes its time to find the right person who fills all its requirements.” PSO can use contract musicians to fill the spot while the search continues.
THE PATH TO TENURE
Once hired, the musician still must work for two years to achieve tenure and permanent employment. “During this time,” Jim said, “you meet with your committee (who are evaluating your performance as an orchestra member) who tell you that you are doing this well, but here is where you need to work to improve.”
They agreed that, just as energy flows during a performance from musicians to audience, so energy also flows from audience to musicians on the stage. And that while audience members look for musicians they know on the stage, so musicians search the audience for people they know.
The stories of so many professional musicians begin with evidence at a very early age of a fascination with a certain sound, a certain instrument, attempts to play it. The early manifestation is true also of mathematicians. “There is a close relationship between music and math,” Dylan said. “And computer science, too. Many technology firms look for a musical background in hires.”
Both these musicians had their mothers as their first teachers.
Dylan’s mother was an accomplished amateur musician. When he was three they moved to San Jose, CA, where he began violin lessons under his mother’s guidance, eventually studying with Jenny Rudin, “. . . who had a lasting impact on me. Her ideas on sound and body awareness were truly revelatory.”
When he was 13 Dylan toured Chile and Argentina with the San Jose Youth Symphony, That trip through South America made him want to be a professional musician, witnessing the relationship between orchestra and audience. “Not so much the big cities but in the small cities we toured where our appearance meant so much to the people who lived there.”
“That’s my man!” Dylan exclaimed at mention of Chicago’s John Becker, violin repairer and restorer of choice for such artists as Joshua Bell and James Ehnes. A cellist extending his instrument’s stand speared Dylan’s violin. “It took (John Becker) 12 weeks to repair and restore it.”
THE PIANO LESSON
James Benoit is from Niskayuna in upstate New York where his mother had a piano studio and began teaching the instrument to him. “It was hard studying with my mon. She would ask if I had practiced. She could hear in her studio in the basement if I had or not. She really wanted me to study music, not necessarily to become a performer but to appreciate it.” So piano studies ended with his agreement to continue music studies and to play an instrument through high school. Everything changed when he turned to percussion in fifth grade. “II really enjoyed percussion, and found I was good at it.”
“I was first interested in both classical music and jazz.” He enrolled at Boston Conservatory of Music, which had a relationship with Berklee College of Music where students enrolled at one could take classes at the other, and after two years he transferred to Berklee, from which he received his bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t want to be forced down one track so the Boston Conservatory/Berklee association worked for me.” His major at Berklee was jazz vibraphone, but he was also taking timpani lessons from Salvatore Rubio, retired timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “It was an amazing experience getting so much information, but trying to do all of that was maybe too much at the time.”
A conviction that he wanted to be a classical musician led to his audition and acceptance at Juilliard for his master’s degree.
Jim Benoit is no stranger to Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Duquesne University granted his Artist Diploma, he was on the University of Pittsburgh faculty, and while at Duquesne he was able to work as a substitute with PSO. He has built a network of relationships every place he has worked; that has served him well n his career.
ORCHESTRAS WITH SIMILAR VALUES
Both were musicians with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, where Jim was associate principal timpanist, though not at the same time. An accident? Not necessarily, Jim said. “Certain orchestras have similar musical styles, and both Fort Worth and Pittsburgh play with spirit. That orchestra appears to have musical traits that are also valued in Pittsburgh.”
Both musicians have experience with opera. Dylan worked with the production of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at Indiana University. Jim spent four three-month seasons with Sarasota Opera during and after his studies at Duquesne.
Jim went on to become Seattle Symphony principal timpanist before winning the audition for PSO principal timpanist.
Jim Benoit enjoys teaching and coaching chamber music, as well as timpani and percussion.
Dylan enjoys chess, yoga, cooking and science-based podcasts, particularly The Huberman Lab by Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University.
Both like the energy of the city, Pittsburgh’s generous green spaces, and biking, though neither bikes to work. Jim is a runner and likes the wealth of trails available to him.
Could they see themselves still in Pittsburgh in 10 years? “Oh, yeah, definitely,” said Jim.
Dylan, with less experience of the city, considered the question before answering, “Probably. Yeah, I could.” And later adding, “I do wish to be in Pittsburgh for many years to come! The orchestra really does feel like family.”
NOTE: Some information for Jim Benoit’s background comes from, “Jim Benoit. A Percussion Story,” Facebook: The Percussion Conservatory, 7.7.2022, Joshua Vanderheide.