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Violinist Nisbet figures has music figured out
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Violinist Nisbet figures has music figured out

Ben Nisbet called his mom not long after graduating from Oberlin College in 2003.

“Mom, what if I’m not supposed to play the violin? This is all I’ve ever done.”

Cynthia Nisbet didn’t miss a beat.

“Ben, figure it out,” she told him.

He made a similar call two years later.

“Mom, I put my violin down for two years, and I can’t go without it,” he told her after spending those years playing guitar in rock and electronica bands in Ohio.

“He had to figure it out because he’d been playing his whole life. He found out that that was what he wanted to do, so he did it,” says his mother, who teaches math at Tucson Magnet High School.

In the 13 years since, Ben Nisbet has learned to navigate the often choppy waters of being a professional musician.

In doing so, he has carved out a career that has taken him from the opera house to the symphony stage, from Tucson rock clubs to local recording studios. He has toured China — twice — with a Tucson ballet company that he helped put together and was part of the True Concord Voices & Orchestra ensemble recording that was nominated for two Grammy Awards last year.

“I just never have really done anything else,” says Nisbet, 36.

In two weeks, he will be at the center of what could be his biggest musical challenge to date: hosting a 90th birthday party concert for Tucson arts philanthropist Dorothy Dyer Vanek with more than 60 musicians and vocalists and a trio of soloists.

The June 26 concert, spearheaded by the St. Andrew’s Bach Society and True Concord, is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s as much as the society spent to put on its last two summer concert series, says Nisbet, the group’s artistic director.

Nisbet says his organization is reaching out to the community for donations and sponsorships. If he’s nervous about making ends meet at the end of the concert he doesn’t really let on.

It’s just one more thing for him to figure out.

What were you
doing at age 2?

Ben Nisbet set his course on music at an age when most kids are in diapers. He was 2½ when he started playing violin, following in the steps of his big brother Joshua, who is six years his senior.

“I just wanted to do whatever he did because he was the big brother,” says Nisbet, who also has a younger sister.

He begged his mom and dad, Jack Nisbet, to let him take a lesson. They agreed, thinking he’d take a lesson and that would be that, his mother recalls. But the one lesson with his brother’s teacher turned into a year of lessons, which led to his orchestral debut, at the ripe age of 3, with his brother’s elementary school orchestra in Colorado.

Jack and Cynthia Nisbet surrounded their family with music. All three, including younger sister Claire, took violin lessons, following in their father’s footsteps. Jack Nisbet had played violin throughout high school. Cynthia sang in the church choir.

The family moved to Tucson when Ben turned 4. Cynthia Nisbet spotted a bumper sticker: “Tucson Junior Strings builds orchestra players.” She immediately thought of Joshua, but when she called Junior Strings Music Director Dennis Bourret, she brought up the idea of enrolling Ben.

“He said, ‘I’ve never done this before, but I’ll try,’ ” she recalls.

Ben Nisbet became the youngest violinist ever accepted into Junior Strings, which is no easy feat. Founded in 1969 by Bourret’s wife Anna, the ensemble is now comprised of 10 orchestras with some 200 kids and has fairly rigid requirements. Among them: You have to be able to play and count notes, know the notes and understand sharps and flats.

“This is not a Suzuki approach that we’re talking about,” explains Bourret, who has led the youth orchestras since 1971. “I don’t teach that way, and I have difficulty when they learn that way. … Ben was technically capable of doing the stuff, and he seemed quite bright and eager to be there. He was a pretty precocious kid, a pretty bright kid.”

Nisbet was still 4 when he played his first Junior Strings concert.

“We had to put two phone books on the ground so that his feet could touch the ground when he was playing,” Bourret says.

Nisbet played with Tucson Junior Strings through high school and with the Tucson Philharmonia Youth Orchestra, the professional-level symphonic training program that tries to prepare students for college and music careers.

Nisbet won that group’s annual concerto competition when he was in high school, playing the very challenging Dvorák Violin Concerto. But when it came time to play the piece in a concert with the Philharmonia, its director at the time told Nisbet he had to learn a different piece; the orchestra wasn’t strong enough to pull off the Dvorák, Bourret recalled.

Instead, he had six weeks to learn the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Bourret knew Nisbet, who graduated from Salpointe Catholic High School in 1998, would figure it out.

“He’s that kind of player. We’re talking talent here,” says Bourret, who also worked with Nisbet on his college auditions. “He’s the kind of person who wants to do something, and he knows he can, so he puts himself on it. That’s why he takes on these projects.”

Trying on new shoes

After graduating from Oberlin, a selective liberal arts college and conservatory of music in Ohio, Nisbet put his violin on the shelf and hung around, playing mostly guitar in rock and electronica bands while he figured out his place in the world.

“I just kind of lived a different life for a little while,” he recalls. “I had played violin for 20 years or whatever it was at that point, and I was a little burned out on it. So I took a different path to see what it was I wanted to do.”

That path led him back to Tucson and the violin two years later to attend the funeral of a close friend. The family had asked Nisbet to play his violin at the service.

The experience helped him reconnect with the instrument and made him realize how much he missed playing. Three months later, he moved home and quickly landed a spot on the Arizona Opera Orchestra. When the Tucson Symphony Orchestra was looking for a violinist the following season, he auditioned and won the job.

It was just the beginning.

“I had already figured out by the time I started with the symphony that that was only going to be one part of my life,” says Nisbet, who took on freelance work and taught violin lessons to help make ends meet on his TSO salary.

Nisbet immersed himself in the orchestra, becoming a founding member of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians union executive board. He represented his musician colleagues in a pair of collective bargaining agreements for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Musicians Organization.

“The binding fiber of my life is that I am really hyperactive, and I like to do a lot of things. I’m not monogamous to a job,” says Nisbet, whose hyperactivity was diagnosed as a teenager.

He says that is largely why he has taken so many rewarding and diverse musical paths. It’s also why when you see him at a concert you will rarely see him sitting still. He bounces from the stage to the audience, chattaing with audience members during intermissions.

It’s also why he can easily juggle many hats. A few years ago, that included playing with the TSO and True Concord, running a teaching studio with as many as 20 students and attending graduate school at the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music. In 2011, he raced between finishing his UA finals and packing for a tour of China with Artifact Dance, a company he formed with his now ex-wife, Ashley Bowman, and her dance partner, Claire Hancock.

That was summer 2011, when he also took the reins of the Bach Society. The group performed the first concert of his first programmed season without him.

For Nisbet, one venture begat another. He formed Kingfisher String Quartet, played in Bella Carita ensemble, and was part of True Concord’s 2015 album “Far in the Heavens: Music of Stephen Paulus.” He played the record release concert last Sept. 11 at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The album was later nominated for two 2016 Grammys.

“(Ben) is always inside the music, and to me that is paramount,” says True Concord founder and conductor Eric Holtan, who conducted the recording and the New York concert. “He is not just playing the right notes and rhythms; he’s into the music.”

Nisbet has also been a regular session musician in virtually every Tucson recording studio including WaveLab, Jim Brady Studios, Luna and Saint Cecilia.

He has recorded with Tucson artists including Naïm Amor, Tesoro, Ryanhood, Sweet Ghosts, Katie Haverly and The Aviary and, just this month, Run Boy Run’s Grace Rolland.

Some of those studio gigs have turned into live performances — most notably with Haverly and Sweet Ghosts, with whom he toured last summer.

“Ben … is a really amazing violinist, but he also happens to have great connections with a lot of other musicians in the community,” says Saint Cecilia owner Steven Tracy, who has worked with Nisbet on recordings with a number of Tucson bands.

“He’s a connecting piece with other musicians in the community. … He really approaches music holistically so he is not in love with just his own kind of music. He views things in big, broad strokes,” Tracy says.

Last fall, Nisbet left his seat on the TSO stage after nine seasons to take a behind-the-scenes job as the TSO orchestra and operations manager.

“I am part of the machine that makes it go,” he explains. “I wanted to have the opportunity to do it for a large organization with a $4 million budget as opposed to a $40,000 budget, to get the experience to see if that was going to be something that later on in life I was going to want to still be doing. I felt pretty satisfied that I had played a lot of the music I had wanted to play as a member of the orchestra, and I had accomplished a lot of things. So I just decided I wanted a different talent.”

The biggest
challenge yet

Nisbet isn’t exaggerating when he says the “Happy Birthday Dorothy” concert June 26 will be his biggest artistic endeavor. It will involve more than 60 musicians — instrumentalists and vocalists, including a pair of vocal soloists and a piano soloist.

The concert was conceived by Holtan and planned out by him and Nisbet as a joint effort of St. Andrew’s Bach Society and True Concord. But the Bach Society is on the hook financially to pay the professional musicians and all other costs.

Nisbet allows that it’s a big chunk of money, and the Bach Society, which has solid financial footing, could pick up the tab. But this concert is about much more than making ends meet once the stage lights come back on.

“We want it to feel like it’s a gift that comes from the community, that the community is showing the appreciation for what (Vanek) has done for the arts and charitable organizations,” he explains. “I want her to be able to have the experience of seeing something, receiving something that comes from everybody. We’re hosting Christmas, but everybody’s bringing gifts.”

Vanek has been a longtime, regular patron for years of the TSO, True Concord, the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, and Interfaith Community Services. The concert will be held at her church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Oro Valley.

The Bach Society launched a fundraising campaign called “Give Dorothy A Gift” in which donors can contribute anywhere from $25 to $500 in exchange for concert tickets and their names on a community birthday card for Vanek. The campaign in just a couple weeks old, and Nisbet says he is getting several calls a day about donations.

“(Ben) is the guy that’s getting it done,” says Holtan, who will conduct the June 26 performance. “Ben’s the one that’s seeing this through.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter: @Starburch

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