An orchestra’s VIP

Sometimes a star on stage, the concertmaster is always a worker behind the scenes

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Glenn Dicterow was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He says an inspirational, great performance is reward enough for the complex job.
David Geffen Hall

If you have attended a classical orchestra concert, you’ve seen the concertmaster.

He or she enters after the rest of the orchestra is onstage, to polite applause. They ask the oboe to play a note, and the orchestra tunes. Once the music starts, they play any solos that are written in the orchestra score.

But what else do they do?

Quite a bit, it turns out. They serve as leader of the violin section, and by extension all of the strings; they help the conductor achieve his or her interpretation; they facilitate communication between conductor and players; they audition new players; and sometimes they represent the orchestra to the public. All of this work is done behind the scenes, which makes the concertmaster a very important person. It’s also why the conductor shakes the concertmaster’s hand at the end of the concert.

But the devil’s in the details, and to get the details, I talked to four current and former concertmasters. One of them is Glenn Dicterow, retired concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, who was in Boulder the last week of September for CU Bernstein at 100, the ongoing celebration of the Leonard Bernstein Centennial at the CU College of Music.

Dicterow was concertmaster of the Philharmonic for 34 years, serving under four of its music directors: Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert. He played many times under Bernstein, both as concertmaster and as a soloist on tour with the orchestra.

I also talked to Chas Wetherbee, concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic, who held the same role with the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony; Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra in Santa Cruz, California; and Calin Lupanu, concertmaster of the Colorado Music Festival orchestra in the summer and of the Charlotte (North Carolina) Symphony.

There are some obvious ways the concertmaster leads the strings.

“That’s your job, to lead the section, and you do it by example,” Dicterow says. “I actually use the scroll of the violin as a baton. You have to imagine yourself as a conductor, delivering the message of the conductor to all eight or nine stands.”

That is the visible part of the leadership, taking place during rehearsals and performances. If you watch the concertmaster in concerts, you can see them leading the players sitting beside and behind them.

Chas Wetherbee, in the concertmaster’s chair, with members of the Boulder Philhamonic.

Concertgoers easily notice that the bows in each section go up and down, or back and forth, together. That doesn’t happen by chance; deciding how the bows are to be used (bowing) is one of the largest, and most critical,  parts of the concertmaster’s job.

Bowing is more than just the up and down directions. First of all, there is the choice of moving the bow smoothly across the string, on the string bowing, or bringing the bow into the air between notes, off the string. And there are many varieties of each — legato, marcato, martele, spicatto, ricochet, detaché, and many more. These bowing decisions have to be made by the concertmaster, essentially for every note in every piece.

“I’m working about six to 10 months in advance,” Lupanu says. “I mark the parts, I even practice, to some extent, the piece at that time. And once that’s done and it’s marked, I scan [my part] and hand it to the librarian. The librarian marks the parts in the first violin section and sends a copy to the other principal strings. It takes several weeks.”

Hwang-Williams describes essentially the same process with the Colorado Symphony. “Many months out, once the program is set for the next year, we start the bowing procedure, and it starts with the concertmaster,” she says. “I will get a part and mark my bowings, check them from previous performances, or if it’s a new work, starting from scratch.

“Then it goes to the principal second, principal viola, cello, bass — we have to make sure that we have a unified vision of the bowings. That can be very time-consuming. You’re making an informed guess as to what’s going to work. We may have a guest conductor with a very different concept, so then you won’t know until the first rehearsal. Often you have to make quick changes.”

Some conductors will check the bow markings before rehearsals, and many guest conductors used to provide their own marked parts. That is less common today, although all conductors have their own ideas about how the bowings support their interpretation.

This is where the concertmaster serves the conductor’s concepts rather than just their own. “The conductor is the artistic visionary of the orchestra,” Wetherbee says. “It’s the concertmaster who’s helping translate that into the practical day-to-day activity, or the technique of the orchestra, to make that vision happen.

“During rehearsals we’re making adjustments: the conductor wants more sound in this particular passage, we need to adjust our bowing. The conductor wants something to be more aggressive or muscular, that’s a different bowing. All of these things are being adjusted.”

Translating the conductor’s vision often means that the job changes from one conductor to the next. For example, Dicterow says Bernstein expected a lot from the section leaders. “With Lenny it wasn’t about clarity, it was about the inspiration and the emotion and the profundity of what he put into the interpretation,” he says.

“Leaders of every section needed to take responsibility of being able to transmit what he was getting at. He trusted every section to have leaders strong enough to make the performance complete in every way, technically and emotionally. It was a challenge sometimes to keep things together, because that’s not what he was there for. In that regard it was a bit more challenging, but so well worth it.”

Concertmasters all relish the solos they play in some orchestra pieces, particularly the longer ones in some of the Romantic showpieces. “I’ve played [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] Scheherazade, I’ve played [Richard Strauss’] Das Heldenleben. I love these pieces,” Lupanu says. “I love them all, I play them all!”

Courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony
Calin Lupanu, concertmaster of the Charlotte (NC) Symphony.

But those solos come with a hidden challenge, too. “Concertmaster solos often are prickly,” Hwang-Williams says. “String players are part of a large section. So there’s a lot of time when you don’t really hear your own sound for a while, then all of a sudden you’re by yourself. That’s probably the biggest challenge of playing concertmaster solos.”

Another part of the job is being part of the orchestra’s outreach to the public and to donors. “Whenever you’re out playing elsewhere, you’re representing your orchestra, being out into the community and being a cheerleader,” Hwang-Williams says.

Something the public rarely sees is the concertmaster keeping the peace among the many artists who work together in the orchestra. “Are there sometimes issues in a marriage?” Lupanu asks rhetorically. “You can imagine how it is in an ensemble of between 80 and 100 people that spend time every day together. It’s normal, and you try to be diplomatic.”

The New York Philharmonic in particular had a reputation of being difficult with some guest conductors. “Historically, I would say that [reputation] is fair,” Dicterow says. He described the players in the early days as “fighters from the Bronx. We had such a guy, he was a wonderful player, right behind me and he would just say [to a guest conductor], ‘What are you talking about? Here, you do it! Here’s the violin!’

“It’s up to me to make peace. You’re sort of an ambassador.”

Wetherbee mentioned another hidden part of the job. “It’s usually unwritten, but there’s a very strong expectation that you are prepared, should a [violin] soloist cancel, to step in and play that particular concerto,” he says. “If it’s a standard concerto, even on very short notice, the expectation is that you could stand up and play it.

”That means that you look over the season and see that if there is a Mendelssohn Concerto, a Tchaikovsky [or] a Barber Concerto, you’re keeping these on your radar and enough in your fingers that even with only a week’s notice you are ready to take that on. And that has happened to me in Columbus.”

All four concertmasters emphasize that their multifaceted position is very demanding and time-consuming. “I want to say that it is an extremely complex job,” Lupanu says.

But Dicterow says the work has its rewards. “The best part is that your team has stood behind you and you’ve made this incredible sound together. You’ve been a good team leader, and the payoff is a great, inspirational performance. That’s the wonderful part of it.

“That’s the payoff.”