Twelve-year-old violinist will perform at Klezmerfest

A new pair of Birkenstock sandals marked a rite of passage for 12-year-old Noah Bendix-Balgley when he celebrated his birthday July 15.

"It was his coming of New Age," joked the youngster's mother, Meredith Balgley, from the family home in Berkeley. "He was no longer wearing kids' sizes. It was a turning point."

He also got his first full-sized violin around the same time. He'll use it to jam with the Ellis Island and California Klezmer bands at Kehilla Community Synagogue Homeless Committee's fourth annual Klezmerfest Sunday, March 8 in Oakland.

A kid of 4-1/2 is too small to hold a violin as large as a concertmaster's. That's how old Noah was when he enrolled at Suzuki Institute in Ithaca, N.Y.

The institute, which teaches music to the very young, requires a parent to learn the instrument first, then teach the child. Noah's father reluctantly got the job.

"I had to be convinced," said Erik Bendix, a dance teacher and student at San Francisco's Alexander Training Institute who will lead the dancing at Klezmerfest.

"I thought it was a bad idea. I was wrong."

He soon found that his offspring "totally left me in the dirt."

Concurring that his father "fell behind after the first year," Noah said, "I just like practicing and playing."

The eighth-grader at Berkeley's Crowden School, which specializes in music, practices two hours a day.

His academic lessons and music classes typically last from 8 a.m. to around 3 in the afternoon. He's also preparing to celebrate his bar mitzvah July 19 at Berkeley Hillel, and studies Hebrew one day a week.

As the youngest member of the San Francisco Youth Symphony — which will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 2 at Davies Symphony Hall — he rehearses an additional four hours nearly every Saturday.

In addition, the slim 5-foot-2-inch brunet tries to shoot hoops for a half hour each day with his 9-year-old brother Aaron, who is also learning violin.

Noah spends the rest of his leisure time composing. Classical music is very precise, and "everything you do is really important," said the young musician, whose Passacaglia in C minor — a short piece for five strings — will debut at a future school performance.

"At school, everyone composes," said Noah, explaining that a passacaglia is a theme with variations. He has also tried his hand at sonatas, 12-tone music ("it's more mathematical than difficult") and fugues.

"You have to interlock the parts and make them work," he said of the latter, which he finds the most difficult to compose.

Klezmer, on the other hand, "is more about expressing yourself."

He learned the basics from klezmer veterans Michael Alpert and Alicia Svigals, and has performed at Klezmerfest for the past three years.

This annual event, which features klezmer music performances and dance sessions in which audience members are encouraged to participate, is a benefit for the homeless.

He'll rehearse once with California Klezmer, he said. Instead of having to reach the group's degree of expertise himself, "I think they're going to be doing my repertoire," he said.

There's no question in the youngster's mind that music is his vocation. Noah hopes to become a soloist or a violinist in a chamber group.

"He's looking forward to a career" in music, added his father. Noah has been "completely clear since age 4-1/2 that's what he wanted to do."