The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) is pleased to announce that Helen Benson has been appointed as Principal Piccolo, taking up her role on the 13 June 2022.
Helen has been a member of the Oslo Philharmonic since 2014 and has recently been invited to play guest Principal Piccolo with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia. Since living in Norway she has been a regular guest Principal Flute with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and has also worked with the Norwegian Opera Orchestra, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Bergen Philharmonic. Helen is a keen chamber musician and is the flautist of the Oslo Philharmonic Wind Quintet and the contemporary music group Ensemble Temporum. In collaboration with the Oslo Philharmonic, she has coached the woodwinds of the Palestinian Youth Orchestra in Ramallah and Norway.
Helen obtained her master’s degree from the Swedish National Orchestra Academy in Gothenburg, studying flute with Håvard Lysebo and piccolo in Oslo with Andrew Cunningham. During her two years in Sweden she worked regularly with Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Opera Orchestra and Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra.
Helen’s early musical studies were at Chetham’s School of Music. She went on to graduate from Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2004. Shortly after graduation, she was appointed Principal Piccolo with Monterrey Symphony Orchestra in Mexico. The following year she relocated to Mexico City, where over the next five years she worked with Mexico City Philharmonic, Mexico State Symphony Orchestra, Bellas Artes Chamber Orchestra, Bellas Artes Theatre Orchestra and Camerata de las Américas. In 2007 Helen joined Minería Symphony Orchestra as Principal Piccolo and went on to hold the Principal Flute position from 2009-2012.
Helen grew up on the south coast of England. Outside music she has also enjoyed studying several languages as well as training in nutrition and therapeutic massage. She loves cooking, yoga, swimming in the sea, walking in nature, travelling, reading, watching films and spending time with friends. After seventeen years living abroad Helen is very excited to move back to the U.K. and embark on a new chapter with CBSO!
When did you decide to become a professional flautist?
I knew I wanted to become a professional musician around the time I turned 13 because I was way more interested in practicing flute than most other subjects at school! Following my GCSE exams I left my boarding school in rural Somerset to start my sixth form at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester where I could focus on music/flute/performance.
Which flautists did you look up to as a young musician?
As a tiny kid I was a massive James Galway fan! I had all the LP records of him playing everything. My parents took me to hear him play a Mozart concerto in Chichester cathedral not far from our house when I was around 8 years old and we went “backstage” afterwards to get his autograph. In order to sign my programme he asked me to hold his golden diamond encrusted flute for a moment! I was totally starstruck and think that might have been the moment I got completely hooked on the flute! I was also hugely inspired in my early teens by flute courses I did with Kristen Spratt, William Bennett and Peter Lloyd.
What was the highlight from your time with the Oslo Philharmonic?
Without a doubt playing piccolo in Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 on a big European tour. That was an unforgettable adrenalin-pumped musical roller coaster night after night in some of the best halls in the world!
What is some of your favourite repertoire to perform?
As a piccolo-player, the Shostakovich Symphonies are perhaps the top of my favourite repertoire list! The piccolo parts in themselves are not only exhilarating and challenging to play but the symphonies are an incredible experience to be part of as a whole. I also love Strauss (especially the two tone poems Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan) which I find so fun to play! I adore the music of Ravel and Debussy and am also a big fan of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. I pretty much love everything Mozart wrote, I find the four Brahms symphonies soothing to the soul and I love playing the Bach Passions and Masses on a wooden flute.
What are you most looking forward to about coming to live in the UK again?
I can’t wait to just be able to take the train instead of the plane home to visit my Mum and cats! Also speaking and hearing English all the time will honestly be quite a relief after so long abroad with foreign languages and hopefully I’ll start fully understanding all the jokes again!! Buying pints at the British pub for a mere few pounds instead of the hair-raising prices in Norway will be quite a revelation! And strange as it may sound, I’ve actually really missed the rain. I’ve experienced a lot of snow and ice in the last 10 years in Scandinavia and am honestly looking forward to those typically British grey, overcast, rainy days without a snowflake in sight!!!
What are you most looking forward to about joining the CBSO?
I’m very much looking forward to shifting the focus from the flute to the piccolo in my new role as principal piccolo. I can’t wait to be based in a such a fabulous and inspiring performance space as Symphony Hall and I’m very excited to start working with the newly appointed conductor Kazuki Yamada whom I first encountered with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra ten years ago playing piccolo in Daphnis & Chole. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know Birmingham and the surrounding area which is totally new territory to me.