Find me a concertmaster

Find me a concertmaster


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2011

In the February issue of The Strad, I discuss the declining status of the orchestral concertmaster – once as important a figure as the maestro but now increasingly invisible. Why is that?

Here’s a sampler:

There was a time when, woken in the middle of the night, I
could rattle off the names of concertmasters in great orchestras the way a
schoolboy recites his football team or a whisky priest his catechism.

At Karajan’s left knee in Berlin sat Michel Schwalbé, the
expressionless Holocaust survivor. In Vienna, it was Rainer Küchl, young before
his time. Hermann Krebbers personified the Concertgebouw. Michael Davis led the
flash-Andre mob of the LSO. Rodney Friend kept the New York Phil in tune for
Boulez and Mehta. Samuel Magad ruled the line in Solti’s Chicago.

And it was not just world leaders who gripped the
imagination. Malcolm Stewart two-timed in Liverpool and Toulouse. Haim Taub was
a national institution in Israel. Steven Staryk held sway in Toronto. Christopher
Warren-Green at the Philharmonia was always poised for a maestro to stumble so
he could take over. The concertmaster, 30 years ago, was almost as much the
public face of an orchestra as its chief conductor and generally more
responsible than him for maintaining morale and tone….

And who’s this on the cover?


  • Marie Lamb says:

    First, the answer to the “cover girl’s” identity is Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. However, the fact that I could identify her immediately brings home some points. We hear a lot about violin soloists today, but not as much of the concertmasters. Even on the syndicated symphonic broadcasts we carry on WCNY-FM, there seem to be far fewer mentions of concertmasters’ names than in years past. The only concertmaster who seems to get mentioned much by name on these programs is Glenn Dicterow on the New York Philharmonic broadcasts. Raymond Gniewek, concertmaster at the Met from 1957 to 2000, was often mentioned by name on Met broadcasts, and so was his alternate, the late Guy Lumia. However, current Met concertmaster David Chan seems to get much less mention by name on the broadcasts. Part of this may be due to the change in announcing and production style in Met broadcasts, but I think that it also reflects a general change in attitude. Also, I must say that the reason I recognized Lisa Batiashvili is that I know that photo from a Sony CD that came across my desk a couple of years ago. When I saw that photo at the time, I thought, “Why is she in concert dress, but sitting in what looks like a warehouse? Are there classical raves now, and is she about to play in one?” Perhaps part of the reason for this change is that the soloists get more marketing, as in that photo that appears targeted to a young audience, while the concertmasters don’t get as much of the glory as they used to.

  • Celia Jelley says:

    Christopher Warren-Green is now my Music Director here in Charlotte, NC, where I am the personnel manager. We are lucky indeed.
    NL: Couldn’t agree more. Give him my best.

  • Doug Patti says:

    Marie, I’m afraid this is not just about whether concertmasters get the glory they deserve, it’s about the place of artistic integrity and leadership qualities.
    What we strive for above all today are technically accomplished players who first and foremost fit an appropriate ‘Hollywood’ image.
    The question no longer is ‘what’s driving classical music these days?’ We know the answer. It’s no longer about honoring the thread of great traditions, or artistic merit or growth and prgress of artistry but it is now just about the numbers (audience, downloads, sales, income). And if you say we need the numbers to keep the art alive then my only reply can be, ‘I hope your grandchildren really like Britney Spears.’

  • Ulysses says:

    How right you are. 30 years ago household names such as Brandis, Spierer, Boskovsky, Schneiderhan, were looked up to by not only violinists but all instrumentalists. They represented a golden thread to the traditions of their orchestras and in many cases studied with teachers who were contemporaries, acquaintances and colleagues of the composers of the orchestras’ main repertoire. One of the reasons they got more recognition and glory is because they were a tour de force in the musical world.

  • Fergus says:

    All I can say – is that for the conductor they are still crucial. It is really evident when you have a good one – David Halen at St Louis, or Andreas Janke at Tonhalle, Lawrence Jackson at the CBSO. However, I think the orchestra has more of a voice as a whole than it used to. All principals are crucial. I think conductors could do more, however, to champion all their players not just the concert master!