Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Second Most Important Person Of a Symphony Orchestra

Repeat post first published in May of 2015

Of course, all of the virtuoso orchestra players are critically important to a good symphony orchestra. Without them there would be no orchestra. But acknowledging that, I think it is recognized that the most important person needed for a good symphony orchestra is the conductor [director] of the orchestra. Also, known as the maestro, a great conductor can make for a great symphony orchestra.

HSO Maestro Andres Orozco-Estrada
So, if one agrees that the conductor is central to having a good orchestra, who is the second most important person?  

In my humble opinion, that would be the "concertmaster". The concertmaster may be recognized as the first violinist. I always used to think that the concertmaster was just chosen as the best violinist in the orchestra, but I have learned from one of the HSO's pre-concert talks that the concertmaster is much more than that.  

The concertmaster is chosen by the orchestra and director to be, like in the sports analogy, the captain of the team [orchestra]. The concertmaster is the liaison between the conductor and the orchestra members. For example, if there are any problems or questions the individual orchestra member may have for the conductor, he relays that to the concertmaster to help him/her.

You will see the concertmaster sit in the first row front seat of the violin section, which will be just to the left of the conductor [from the audience view]. So, the concertmaster will be the closest member of the orchestra both to the conductor and also the patrons attending the concert. There is a reason the concertmaster sits in that position in relation to the other violins, so they can view the concertmaster as he is like a secondary conductor for them.

The concertmaster has many other important and critical responsibilities. He/she is the first one the conductor contacts to inform him on how the conductor wants the phrasing of the piece to be played. The concertmaster then will create the bowing for the violins to meet the requirements of the phrasing. It is his responsibility to make sure that all the violinists are on the same page. Whenever you watch a piece played by your symphony orchestra, watch how the bows of the violins will be played in perfect synchronization by every violinist. That is amazing to me. They all go up at the same time and go down at the same time. Synchronized swimming gold medalists have nothing on the violinists in a symphony orchestra. 

If you ever go to a symphony concert in your home town, you will see, before the concert begins, the members of the symphony orchestra in their seats practicing various phrases of the different pieces they are about to play. They will all be there except for the concertmaster who is still backstage. Just before the concert is about to begin you will then see the concertmaster come out to applause from the patrons. He will stand by his seat in the front and when he does all members of the orchestra, except for the strings, will tune up their instruments. Then after they've started to  tune up their instruments, the concertmaster will begin to tune up his violin and when he does it will be only then that the string players will tune up theirs. 

Then the concertmaster will take his seat and when all the instruments have been tuned and are silent, the conductor will come out to the applause of the audience. After the conductor bows to the crowd he will shake the hand of the concertmaster. When the piece is finished the conductor will bow to the audience and shake the hand of the concertmaster again.

Also, when there is a concerto, you will see the soloist shake the hands of both the conductor and the concertmaster before and after the concerto.

Because the concertmaster is also the liaison between the members of the orchestra and the director, it is important that he gets along with and can communicate well with, the rest of the orchestra members. A symphony orchestra that has both a good conductor and a good concertmaster will be a unified team making for a great symphony orchestra.   

That is the case in Houston as we are blessed to have both a great maestro and a great concertmaster. I have talked many times about our dynamic, young maestro, Andres Orosco-Estrada, truly a world class conductor. The last two concertmasters of the Houston Symphony Orchestra have been Eric Halen and [currently] Frank Huang.  They have both been so friendly and outgoing with the orchestra and the public. We loved Eric and we now love Frank, both really great concertmasters to go along with HSO's great director.

* Check the update at the bottom of this post 
HSO concertmaster Frank Huang

I remember at one of the Houston Symphony Orchestra's pre-concert lectures known as "prelude", we were blessed to have concertmaster Frank Huang there to talk about and answer questions about his role as concertmaster. What a friendly, nice, outgoing gentleman. No wonder this man was chosen as the orchestra's concertmaster. He displayed an expert knowledge and love of, not just the violin, but also the music he discussed with us.

I think I have heard, but can't say with 100% accuracy, that the concertmaster is the highest paid member of the orchestra. With all of his responsibilities I can understand why. 

In the first video where the Mito Chamber Orchestra plays Mendelssohn's melodic Hebrides Overture, watch how conductor Nathalie Stutzmann comes out to the applause of the audience, shakes the hand of the concertmaster, bows and turns to the orchestra to begin the piece.  Then when the piece concludes, Maestro Sutzmann will bow to applause, and again shake the hand of the concertmaster. 

Please turn up the volume and enjoy!

Felix Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture, "Fingal's Cave":

Now watch the final movement, a rondo, of one of  my favorite Beethoven piano concertos, the #3 in c minor and look at the conclusion of the concerto how the soloist will first shake hands with the conductor, and then shake hands with the concertmaster, the second most important person in a symphony orchestra.  Also, watch the conductor shaking hands with the concertmaster.

L.V. Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3 in C minor, Movement 3, rondo allegro:

Now in a great performance of Beethoven's wonderful exciting violin concerto, watch as virtuoso violinist, Hilary Hahn, at the end of this final movement shakes the hand of the concertmaster, followed by the iconic director of the [I believe performing in this video] Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, shakes the concertmaster's handThen as Hilary comes back on for a second ovation, you will see her once again shake the hand of the concertmaster.

L.V. Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major: Movement 3, Rondo-Allegro

* Update: From a Houston Chronicle article, April 26, 2019With the departure of Frank Huang, who has become concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Yoonshin Song, after an exhaustive 3 year search, has been selected as the Houston Symphony Orchestra's new concertmaster. Yoonshin "served as concertmaster in Detroit for seven years". “I am definitely excited about this new opportunity,” Song said. “And all that will come with it. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the people, getting to know them."  

HSO new concertmaster Yoonshin Song
“Yoonshin’s exceptional musicality, artistry, experience and personality made her our unanimous choice,” said Houston Symphony musical director AndrĂ©s Orozco-Estrada. “She will enrich the musical life of our city through our work together with the orchestra.”

We wish concertmaster Frank Huang well and best success in New York, and we welcome our wonderful new HSO concertmaster, that we were blessed to find, Yoonshin Song.  

1 comment:

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