Benjamin Geller ought to be fatter, older, slightly inebriated and smelling of a donkey when you meet him. After all, he’s responsible for bringing earthy peasant Sancho Panza to life when the Charlotte Symphony plays Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” Friday and Saturday. But here he is, beard neatly trimmed and well-spoken on many subjects, having a coffee at 7th Street Market the week before the concert.
In this piece, he plays second fiddle – or rather, viola – to guest soloist Julian Schwarz, whose cello depicts the title character of Strauss’ tone poem. (Gerard Schwarz, Julian’s father, will conduct.) It’s up to Geller to provide Sancho’s genial nagging, fearful stutters, aping of Dulcinea and good-natured grumbling, off-setting Quixote’s melancholy and dreamy flights of fancy.
Though Sancho is a crafty old geezer, everything about the guy playing him is new.
Geller is relatively new to classical music, having planned to be a jazz violinist at Butler University. His instrument was custom-made just eight years ago by Theodore Skreko of Indianapolis Violins (modeled after the Italian design of Gasparo da Salò). His bow, made by Minnesota master Matthew Wehling, is a year newer.
And at 30, Geller is celebrating his one-year anniversary as principal violist of the CSO, guiding a section where the other full-time players are all older or more experienced.
“Everyone’s been receptive and super-nice,” he says. “I love sitting next to them, even having dinner with them. And I’d hope that music is an ageless game. There are holes in my repertoire, and I’m filling them in, but it’s exciting to play so many great pieces with the orchestra – sometimes for the first time.” (This is his second outing as a “Quixote” soloist.)
He leaned toward progressive bluegrass and jazz growing up, with banjo player Béla Fleck and mandolinist Chris Thile as beacons. He did play Suzuki violin but discovered the cardboard circle he was supposed to stand on for proper foot position was more fun to use as a Frisbee.
At Butler, he took a viola class taught by Michael Isaac Strauss and fell into his future career. “I was waking up at 6 and practicing at midnight with meal breaks,” he says. “Negative reinforcement worked for me. He’d say, ‘You’re playing like you want to be homeless!’ ”
But what was the lure of the viola over violin? And what happened to jazz?
“I went to too many rock concerts, and the highest notes of the violin were starting to sound like static. I’ve got these big viola mitts” – he spreads his broad hands wide – “so it’s easy for me to play. I also love the underdog role: The viola supports the higher strings and has a controlling harmonic voice, rather than always trying to lead. If we let go with rhythm or pitch, it’s suddenly anybody’s game.
“One reason to be an orchestra musician was that you don’t have to travel that much. With jazz, you’re always touring. I’m much more of a homebody.”
Really? Over the last five years, since getting a master’s from The Juilliard School, he has been awarded a fellowship to the New World Symphony, joined the Auckland Philharmonia in New Zealand as associate principal violist, moved to the viola section of the Rochester Philharmonic in 2013 and jumped to Charlotte last January.
“Classical careers can sort of be that way,” he says. “So many musicians don’t stay employed that, when you get a call in the middle of the night from New Zealand, you go. But I’m thrilled to be in Charlotte and want to stay, if I get tenure (this year).
“I had a 5-year plan and a 10-year-plan when I started at New World. But finding a place where you’re happy is more important. To play good music with good people – that’s the most rewarding thing.”