Wendy Benner enjoys a richly varied artistic life as an orchestral, chamber, and solo violinist throughout Chicago and beyond. Her solo appearances include performances with the Bach Sinfonia (Maryland), Baroque Band (Chicago), Metropolis Symphony Orchestra (Chicago), and Columbia Orchestra (Maryland). For eight years Ms. Benner served as concertmaster of the Bach Sinfonia, leading the ensemble’s transition from modern to period instruments in live performances and recordings on the Dorian label. Ms. Benner performed as a member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, including a 2008 Grammy-Award winning collaboration. Highlights of her artistic life in Chicago include performing with Haymarket Opera Company, the Apollo Orchestra, and Chicago Opera Theater. She holds a doctorate in violin performance from the University of Maryland.
How did you get started in music?
I was the only avid instrumentalist in the family, but we all grew up singing around the house. Constantly. From earlier than I can remember.
How did you come to play your instrument?
Back in the days of snail-mail correspondence, my mother’s former college roommate, who had married a violinist in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, convinced my mother, three thousand miles away, to start me on violin lessons. Little did my mother’s pen-pal know that I’d end up performing with her husband in the VSO twenty years later!
What is the biggest challenge you face as a musician?
Turning the page at just the right moment, without missing a note or appearing too stressed out. Ha! It’s harder than it looks.
Do you have a favorite performer?
I could listen to James Ehnes’ sweet-toned violin playing all day.
What are a few of your favorite books about music?
Does Dr. Seuss count? I love reading his books to my kids, and his drawings of whimsical musical instruments are hilarious. I can only imagine how marvelously funny they’d sound in real life.
What else are you reading?
Michael Phelps’ autobiography, a Philip Gulley novel, and random biblical psalms to get me through the ups and downs of daily life.
Who are your favorite 17th- and 18th-century composers?
J.S. Bach. He’s famous for a reason. So intricate and profound. Biber is my favorite of the less famous composers. Not to be confused with the “other” Bieber… Justin.
If you were stranded on a desert island, is there one piece of music you would like to have with you?
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I could study the score for hours and hours and never get bored.
What drew you to early music and period instrument performance?
I caught the “period-instrument” bug while in grad school. I loved the nuanced sound and dance-like pacing. You can’t help but tap your foot when listening to a period-instrument performance. The instruments produce a more buoyant sound than their modern counterparts.
How many instruments do you own?
Three violins and four violin bows.
Which one do you play the most?
The modern-style violin made by my grandfather. My baroque violin, by Martin Godliman, plays a close-second role in my musical life.
What are the main differences between your period instrument and its modern version?
The modern version is louder and more uniform in its tone across all registers, from its rich low notes to its robust high notes. The baroque violin is more supple and evokes different personalities or “voices” in its different registers. Also, the baroque violin is way more temperamental in response to changes in temperature and humidity. Playing on gut strings often requires a sneaky ability to adjust the tuning frequently and subtly during a performance. I guess tuning gut strings is almost as challenging as perfectly timing those tricky page turns.
What do you love about HOC?
What’s NOT to love about HOC? Truly, I’ve never been a part of a group that is run more professionally or creates more breathtaking musical moments. HOC is committed to treating its musicians fairly and to providing its audiences with an excellent, even revelatory, experience, both musically and visually. I almost want to pinch myself sometimes. But then I’d miss a note… or an important page turn.
Do you have a favorite rehearsal or concert memory from a past HOC event?
My favorite moments are when the audience roars with laughter at a centuries-old joke that HOC has just brought to life once again.
What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not making music?
I love to swim in Lake Michigan, six months a year, with or without a wetsuit as required by the weather. I settle for an indoor pool the rest of the year.
What is the first thing you think about in the morning?
“Which of my four children needs my attention most urgently at the moment?” OR “Where are my glasses?”
How would you describe the relationship between you and your instrument?
We are not inseparable. But we’re pretty close. Life companions, I guess.
Who are your musical heroes?
Music teachers at all levels. There is seldom glory in teaching a musical instrument, but the dividends of great instruction are nothing short of life-changing for those of us who have benefitted from music lessons, technique lessons, and life lessons along the way.
If you had to play only one composer for the rest of your career, whom would you choose?
J.S. Bach for sure.
What music do you listen to most often?
An incongruous variety: classical music, “latest hits” pop music, and hymns.
If you had not been a musician what do you think you would have done instead?
Write, probably. Or take pictures.