the orchestra world viola

the hot seat

If you’re an assistant principal (as opposed to “assistant to the principal” for you UK Office fans), you’ve got a pretty cushy job.  You don’t play any of the solos (unless there are solos for the second chair), you don’t do any of the bowings, and you basically try to help the principal do their job with as little hassle as possible.

Every so often, however, circumstances push you over into the principal chair, and usually there isn’t much or any preparation for that change.

This morning, at the dress rehearsal for this weekend’s classical program, my principal had to leave midway through the rehearsal for personal reasons.  It took place during the middle of the first movement of the Mozart piano concerto, and I just had to slide over to the first chair, the on-call player moved up, and we seamlessly went on as though nothing had happened.  On our stage, however, the difference in sitting three or four feet downstage makes a huge difference in what you can see and/or hear.  Suddenly I could see our concertmaster, but couldn’t hear the first stand of cellos very well, and I was suddenly face-to-face with our soloist (Angela Hewitt) down the length of the interior of the piano, which is always disconcerting to me.  Then, in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, there are quite a few divisi sections, where the inside player plays a separate line from the outside player, and it just might have been since I was in grad school that I had last played the top line in that piece!  So, add in the fact that there is now a little bit of sight-reading put on my plate!  And finally, there was the fact that I might have to play the treacherous solos in the Webern Passacaglia, Op. 1, without even having played a rehearsal, which did not make for a fun afternoon of practicing.

I made it through the rehearsal with only a slightly elevated stress profile, but playing in the hot seat reminded me of just how different the demands are on a principal string player than even his stand partner, not to mention the rest of the section.  They earn their extra pay, hands down.

I just got the call that Joël will be playing the concert tonight, so I can put the part away and watch some Olympic coverage before heading to the hall tonight.

5 replies on “the hot seat”

I was at the rehearsal and noticed Joel leaving. I had never seen something like that before. I’m glad you brought it up and explained what happened. As for tonight’s performances, the orchestra continues to amaze: luminous strings, sublime winds and muscular, tightly focused brass and percussion in the Berlioz. What an exciting performance! Angela Hewitt is one of my favorite pianists. I could watch her all day long. She is just so graceful and elegant at the keyboard. The slow movement of the Mozart concerto was so beautifully played. Thanks to everyone on stage for a marvelous evening of music..

It is remarkable how a small physical change on stage can sometimes require a dramatic psychological shift. Part of any rehearsal process involves getting used to the playing of those around you, and finding a way to blend with them. When a player from the back of a section is asked to fill in for a missing colleague in the front, that player must react immediately to different dynamics, acoustics, markings/notes in the sheet music, playing style and color of sound. It can be a bit more stressful than an observer might imagine.

nice story, sorry for the extra sweat. I am sure you are all the better for the little extra practicing in the afternoon. mmm? Salem flu? cough, cough.
I left actually because my wife Inés Voglar, was taken to Urgent Care when she suddenly got really sick that morning. We just came back from a follow-up visit today and she is doing much better, she might even play tonight in Salem.

…and by the way, (to the best stand partner ever) I just hope I can get the word “treacherous” out of my head while playing the solos tonight. Maybe I will just freeze and let you do it! 🙂

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