wonderful strauss

Want to hear something great? Take a listen to the newly appointed 1st Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, Noah Bendix-Balgley, currently concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Newspaper article.

what makes a good concertmaster

Kenneth Woods - Photo: Chris Stock

Kenneth Woods, a highly-respected conductor and instrumentalist, is also a high-respected blogger, and he has written a series of posts concerning what it takes to be an effective concertmaster. Since we here at the Oregon Symphony are embarking upon our own search for a lead violin, it’s a timely subject. Here are some of my favorite snippets from the first installment (emphasis are Woods’):

  • Ultimately, you want to set the tone for the orchestra– do you want the orchestra to be a virtuosic, flexible and efficient group? If so, it is up to you to say “anything that can be done, we can do.” You say this most clearly through your own preparation.
  • … your first job is to set the tone for the entire orchestra. What are your expectations of how the orchestra functions in rehearsal? I work with one leader who is very quick to point out to his colleagues, politely, anytime I have to repeat something we’ve stopped for before. As a result, I rarely have to repeat things to that orchestra. How much disruption of rehearsal will you tolerate for marking bowings? How much talking and murmuring  will you accept? What is your feeling about people asking questions out of turn?
  • If there is a problem, make sure it is being worked on, but in the meantime, make sure you are setting an example for the whole orchestra that the rehearsal still matters, even if the conditions are difficult.
  • As you approach the first rehearsal (which, again, is your most important performance), you should be challenging your own assumptions about the repertoire, broadening your horizons and preparing yourself technically to be able to play the piece in the broadest possible range of styles.

Read all of Part I here.

recruit, retain, restore

It’s been about 18 hours since the news broke that Oregon Symphony concertmaster Jun Iwasaki was leaving the OSO for the concertmaster post with the Nashville Symphony. I’ve had quite a few thoughts flit through my head yesterday, but I thought that it would be better to just sleep on it and see what would develop as the day went on. There have been quite a few people that have been wondering “what this means” in the context of the Oregon Symphony and its standing in the world of American orchestras. I think that it both means something and that it doesn’t mean much of anything.
I don’t know Jun’s motivations for leaving the Oregon Symphony – they’re his concern, not mine. Some people have noted that this seems like a lateral move (instead of moving up to an orchestra like Dallas, for example), and were perplexed by what would draw Jun there. Elain Calder’s comment on the move in the Oregon Symphony’s press release does spell out a few clues to the other, more tangible aspects that may have had something to do with the move:
“It’s hard to accept that Jun is leaving us after only four seasons, but the Nashville Symphony has a $23 million budget and a new, acclaimed concert hall. They record regularly on the Naxos label and have received six Grammy awards in the past decade. We wish him all the very best, and will now turn our attention to finding a gifted new concertmaster. In the meantime, we are fortunate in Peter Frajola, our Associate Concertmaster, and we know that the performance standards we demonstrated at Carnegie Hall last month will continue under Carlos Kalmar’s inspired direction.”
So, here’s my translation of the first two sentences of that statement (which may or may not be at all accurate):
“We don’t have as much money, so our pay base is lower than theirs, which means that we can’t match their offer for compensation, and our hall is terrible. We have recorded only one disc with Carlos Kalmar, and that hasn’t yet been released, and we don’t know when or if we’ll be able to produce another recording in the foreseeable future.”
I think that time, more than anything else, made Jun’s decision for him. Four years is a good amount of time for a first major position, and in the orchestra business, the longer you stay in one place, the more likely you are to stay put (ask me how I know). There will likely be even more major positions opening in the next few years, and it helps immensely to stay on the audition circuit and have your name out there for orchestras who are in the hunt for a new concertmaster.
So what does this mean for the Oregon Symphony? Not much, I think. We’ll attract and invite some very highly qualified candidates for this next audition, and I have no doubt that we’ll find someone very good. I remember very clearly the thought that we’d never find anyone to take over for Amy Schwartz Moretti, but Jun showed up and was hired. Not to mention that there was at least one other approved candidate in the field with him in the last audition. So, life will go on.
Perhaps just a bit over a decade ago, there was a comment made during discussions at a violin audition that the Oregon Symphony was more of an ‘entry level’ job. I don’t think that that is so much the case any more, certainly as far as artistic standards go. But in income and benefits, we’re gradually falling behind orchestras who used to lag behind us in decades past. Recruitment and retention are aspects of the business that are always hammered on by the musician members of the contract negotiating team, and this loss of a leading player should prompt some lively discussion of the matter in the currently ongoing negotiations.