Get ready for Benny Tseng

The newest Taiwanese violin star is 24-year-old Yu-Chien (Benny) Tseng. In the past four years he’s skyrocketed to celebrity status at home, recorded two albums with Deutsche Grammophon, and has rubbed shoulders with old-school icons like Gergiev, Pletnev and Penderecki. Maria Roberts catches up with Benny and his manager Wray Armstrong. 

There are not many musicians who can go by one name, and those that do are pretty special: Madonna, Bono, Elvis, Midori, Miloš, Yundi – and now Taiwanese violinist “Benny”, full name Yu-Chien (Benny) Tseng. He might not be at quite that level yet, but he’s made a strong start.

The 24-year-old’s notable competition wins include the gold-standard Tchaikovsky Competition (2015), Singapore International Violin Competition (SIVC, 2015), Isang Yun Competition (2011) and Sarasate International Competition in Pamplona (2009). Deutsche Grammophon (DG) signed him in 2016 and released his debut album Reverie in January 2017. Tracks include Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B Flat Major and Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor, accompanied by Sri Lankan pianist Rohan de Silva. This November, also on DG, he will release Tchaikovsky.

I first saw Benny perform at the SIVC finals at Esplanade in 2015. The then 20-year-old had already enthralled his audience with Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy in the semi-finals; by the finals, a legion of young fans thrummed in the foyer, smitten with the violinist. As I scuttled about asking who was their favourite to win, Benny unequivocally came out as the number one choice. Little wonder, his performance was captivating and his stage presence was equally impressive. When he played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, op 47 (Allegro moderato), an altogether more sombre and despairing piece compared to his Sarasate, hearts melted.

There are scores of competition winners and hundreds of promising violinists out there, how is Benny finding his niche?

“I believe that by the time they are in their late teens, young artists have already developed their unique personality. Benny certainly had his in place, I could see that when I heard him in Singapore,” recalls Wray Armstrong, chairman and CEO of Armstrong Music and Arts. Armstrong started working with Benny just after his win at SIVC in 2015 and handles his worldwide management.

“His unique approach was very elegant and refined, with a beautiful sound unlike that of many other young violinists, who might focus excessively on speed and volume. In terms of marketing him, that sophisticated (and in some ways European influence) has worked strongly in his favour. His sound is also reminiscent of artists like Milstein and the young Isaac Stern.”

Did rapid success at such a young age change Benny? “He is a very grounded individual who enjoys his success,” answers Armstrong. “He also understands that to continue being successful requires hard work and constant improvement on all levels – he is not afraid of all that.”

Benny Tseng
Benny Tseng

As you’d expect, Benny’s terra firma is at home in Taiwan. “His audiences and record sales reflect this,” confirms Armstrong. “After his first album came out, it took only one week to reach Gold in record sales in Taiwan (5,000 albums), to date it is Platinum 3 (30,000+), and the two recitals he gave shortly afterwards sold out in only three days. In the rest of the world [Europe, North America], his success continues to build. He’s receiving invitations from great maestros such as Gergiev, and Pletnev, with whose orchestras he has toured with to major cities like Munich, London, Moscow and Tokyo. His career is also strong in mainland China.

“Having said all that, the ‘measure’ of an artist’s success is really only tangible in the context of the engagements he wants to secure, at the frequency he wants. So, it takes some time to get there.”

For Benny, who plays a 1732 Castelbarco-Tarisio (made by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu), it has been something of a whirlwind journey that has been full of remarkable memories. When we quiz him about his experiences, he has just come off stage from performing Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Asian Youth Orchestra in Manila, part of their Asian tour of China, Japan, and the Philippines.

Says Benny: “There have been many unforgettable concerts in the past few years; one was with Gergiev right after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition. At 2am, after a gala concert in St Petersburg, I received a call from his secretary at Mariinsky Orchestra, telling me that the maestro wanted me to play a Tchaikovsky concerto with him in Finland the very next day. Our rehearsal was very short, but even so the concert went amazingly well: everything felt right, the concert was crisp and had spark. That was the first time I had the feeling that the music and I became one.”

This is an extract of an article in IAM volume 14 issue 9. To subscribe to the magazine and read the full article click here