A Master Concertmaster

By: Edna Landau

Dear Edna:

I am a violinist with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from a major American conservatory. I have won top prizes in some competitions and have always expected that I would be able to attract management and enjoy a solo career. As of late, I have begun to have my doubts about that as it seems that managements are only interested in signing immediate moneymakers. I have been told that I stand a reasonable chance of winning a concertmaster position with a good level orchestra. I did serve as concertmaster in my conservatory orchestra but I am not sure that experience would suffice to qualify me for a professional concertmaster position. I have also regularly played chamber music but I am not sure how relevant that is. In addition, I am hesitant about going the concertmaster route for fear I would have very few solo opportunities in the future. What advice can you offer me? – H.P.

Dear H.P.:

Thank you for your fine question which gave me the opportunity to speak to two wonderful concertmasters: the eminent and greatly respected leader of the New York Philharmonic,  Glenn Dicterow, now in his 34th and final year with the orchestra (after the longest tenure of a concertmaster in the orchestra’s history), and the 29-year-old very well-liked concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Noah Bendix-Balgley, who joined the orchestra in 2011 with many solo accolades, including his title of Laureate from the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition. Both assured me that serving as concertmaster with an orchestra does not mean bidding farewell to solo and chamber music performances. A concertmaster is in the best position among orchestral players to negotiate for free time beyond what might be included in the general master contract. Furthermore, many orchestras, such as Pittsburgh, have relatively light summer seasons, thereby affording their players the opportunity to participate in summer festivals.

Glenn Dicterow reminisced with me about his young years as associate concertmaster, and then concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom he had made his solo debut at age 11 in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Prior to assuming those positions, he had no experience playing in an orchestra — only chamber music. He had won numerous awards and competitions, and the assumption was that he would go the soloist route. However, he realized that he was not the type to thrive on living out of a suitcase and moving from city to city, never knowing what his concert schedule might look like from season to season. He was attracted to the stability that came with a secure orchestra job. He was also well aware that such great musicians as Gregor Piatigorsky, Alfred Wallenstein and Leonard Rose had all occupied first chair positions in orchestras. Once he became concertmaster in Los Angeles, he felt comfortable leading because of his frequent and regular chamber music activities. Noah Bendix-Balgley elaborated on this point with me. He explained that his experience playing first violin in quartets contributed greatly to his comfort level within the orchestra. He cited the visual cues, regular eye contact, having ears constantly tuned to what others are doing, and having the confidence and flexibility to adapt to them. He further explained that “playing chamber music makes you think for yourself, come up with a musical opinion and be able to defend it. These abilities are essential to a concertmaster as well. It’s just a different scale.”

I asked both gentlemen how much time they were able to devote to solo and chamber music repertoire and neither of them felt shortchanged. There are, of course, regular opportunities to play solo with their orchestras. In addition, they have had guest appearances with other orchestras and opportunities to participate in summer festivals. Mr. Dicterow has performed with his own string trio and piano trio over the years but he did admit to me that it can sometimes be challenging to match up dates offered by presenters with the open times in his New York Philharmonic schedule. Mr. Bendix-Balgley said that this drawback was more than compensated for by the many new connections he has made in the music world since joining the Pittsburgh Symphony as concertmaster and touring with them internationally. He has been introduced to institutions where he may someday want to teach or perform more actively, and he will explore those possibilities further when the time seems right.

I also asked both musicians about the qualities that characterize a successful concertmaster. Mr. Dicterow spoke of humility, the importance of positive thinking and respect for others, and the ability to play and think as a member of a team. He mentioned the public relations aspect of being able to convince others of the right way to do things and the esprit de corps to be a conduit between orchestra and conductor in a way that leads to unity. He added that solo moments should be so well prepared that they compare in quality to any guest artist visiting town. Mr. Bendix-Balgley also said that always being prepared and always sounding good are the first steps toward true leadership (advice he received from Alexander Kerr, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). He added that he thinks of himself as a leader among equals. “There are 100 or so amazing musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony and each has a different role. I try to appreciate that role and treat them all with respect.”

Last night, in the course of a public interview entitled “The Quintessential Concertmaster”, which was part of the Insights Series jointly presented by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, Mr. Dicterow spoke about the rich life he has enjoyed with the orchestra under the batons of four music directors:  Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert. His insight, humanity, sensitivity and sense of humor which contributed to making him a great leader on a personal level were all very much on display.  He knows that he will greatly miss his friends and colleagues when he moves to California at the end of this season to more fully assume the position of Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music, at USC’s Thornton School of Music, but the chapter he is closing is a brilliant one indeed. He is truly leaving the New York Philharmonic at the top of his game and he will be very much missed. I hope that if you decide to pursue a position as concertmaster,  you will experience some of the same joy and fulfillment that have characterized his journey to becoming one of the world’s most pre-eminent concertmasters.

© Edna Landau 2013

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