the orchestra world

orchestral hierarchy

I’ve was struck today, as we were rehearsing Richard Strauss’ mighty tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), at the different breeds of players that there are in the modern symphony orchestra. I was listening to our guest concertmaster for the week, Elisa Barston, as she played the extended, fiendishly difficult violin solo which describes the “Hero’s Helpmate” (actually a musical portrait of Strauss’ own wife). She is quite simply an astonishingly good violinist. She has a great, rich sound, spot-on intonation, great musical ideas, and fire to burn (sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Concertmasters are right at the top of the orchestral talent hierarchy (or at least they should be). I’m amazed at people who are able to play at such a high level with consistency.  Extensive training from a young age, disciplined practicing and a degree of luck all play a part in their success.

Whether the rest of us want to admit it or not, there is a hierarchy of talent within the symphony orchestra.  There are the prize thoroughbreds who have always been at the top of their respective classes and have won many major competitions on their way up.  They’re sort of the senior management class of the orchestral corporation.  Then you have various titled players and wind players who are more like middle management.  They have less responsibility than the principals, are paid less, and don’t often get to play solos.  The grunt workers or assembly line personnel are the section string players (a guy I met at an audition suggested that being a section player was akin to being in a 1930’s typing pool).  They get none of the glory, play the most for the least money, and generally make up for this by making fun of senior and middle management types behind their backs (and they think we don’t notice…).

I’ve heard that the Israel Philharmonic used to be called “the orchestra of concertmasters”.  I can’t imagine a more horrible image!  Obviously you want the highest level of player that you can attract for any position, from top to bottom, but the temperament of a violin section all comprised of concertmaster-like players – it would be bedlam!  Just as in life and the workplace, heterogeneity makes for a livelier, more interesting and ultimately, more cohesive environment.  You want everyone to bring their own dish to the orchestral potluck.  It’s up to the music director to manage the menu into a cohesive whole.

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