Violinist: Why I had to quit the Concertgebouw

Violinist: Why I had to quit the Concertgebouw


norman lebrecht

August 16, 2022

The Belgian violinist Sylvie Huang has given her reasons for the first time for leaving one of the world’s great orchestras.

Sylvie, 28, has returned to Brussels as concertmaster of La Monnaie, the national opera. But if the Concertgebouw orchestra had been more flexible, she says, she would have stayed.

In 2019, Sylvie won a major prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Although just a tutti violinist, she was being offered solo engagements and recitals. But the Dutch would not budge when she tried to negotiate a less taxing schedule.

Here’s what she says: ‘It is of course a fantastic orchestra, everything is luxurious, we play in the most beautiful halls. But I have come to a point in my life where I need more time for my own things. I don’t have enough freedom here. As a tutti player you are super busy, if you want to do something next to it, it is almost impossible to combine. I had an 80 percent job, working fewer hours was not allowed. I want to develop myself, play more chamber music, do more soloing. That’s not possible here.

‘What actually happened: after the Elisabeth Competition, I requested a sabbatical. I got a lot of requests for performances. But that request was not granted: you are only allowed a six-month sabbatical after you have been in the orchestra for seven years. The management made some sort of arrangement and the deal was: I resign and a year later, if I want to, I have to confirm before April that I want to go back, and then I can go back to the orchestra. That was in the 2019-2020 season. So that was great. But when covid came, it really became a sabbatical. Then I was very happy to be back in the orchestra.

‘It was a strange year. Because when concerts were allowed again, I had to combine my work with the orchestra with all those postponed performances. In my ‘week off’ I would play three programs and report back to the orchestra on Monday. It was so much that I thought, okay, this is going to be hard.

‘My seventh season was coming up, so I said: then I would like to request those six months of leave. But management didn’t add up those years; so I was just employed for them. So I thought, okay, I’m leaving. Maybe it’s a sign: If I want to do something else, it’s now. I have learned so much, worked with fantastic conductors and soloists, that hall: everything is wow. But I feel I need something new…

‘It’s a shame there’s so little flexibility. All those rules… I have mixed feelings. I am happy, ready to start a new chapter, but also very grateful for everything I have learned.’

Holland’s loss.

Read more here.


  • Manuela says:

    She should have thinked about her career as an orchestra musician and related commitments rather than complaining that the orchestra is not flexible enough to fullfill her wishes. Seems to be naive and egoistic from my point of view. An orchestra needs rules.

    • music lover says:

      Yes,but the RCO is well known for its strict rules(except for some principals),which offers very little time to play other gigs,and its comparetively low pay…It´s very different in top German orchestras.And British orchestras ,of course(not the pay part,of course….)…

    • PG Vienna says:

      She is not ” Naive and egoistic” she is an artist , mind you and just want to do other things.

    • Emil says:

      …It seems to me that’s exactly what she did? She decided to prioritise a mixed freelance-orchestra career, and switched jobs to make that possible. Where’s the issue?

      An orchestra needs rules, sure; and she went to one whose rules fit her career better. Not sure what the fuss is. Are you just unhappy she talks in public about this career move?

      • Alexy says:

        She just won the concertmaster job at the Monnaie opera from Brussels, so no freelancing, high position and free time. She is a great artist, I wish her a successful career.

        • Emil says:

          Concertmasters everywhere have far more flexibility and ability for parallel careers than tutti players. Think Noah Bendix-Balgley, Guy Braunstein, Andrew Wan, as well as the plethora principals in Vienna & Berlin and elsewhere who maintain solo engagements, chamber ensembles, masterclass teaching, etc.
          So a concertmaster post fits her perfectly, from what she says.

          • Bone says:

            This should end the discussion. I only wish her statement had acknowledged what you pointed out regarding an American military acronym: RHIP.
            Anyone know what that means? Cause it sure applies here.
            Best of luck to the young lady and congrats on the appointment in Belgium.

    • Henry williams says:

      When you are an employee you cannot do want
      You want. The freedom comes when you retire.

      • Sarah Hearn-vonFoerster says:

        You do not understand the music world…talented musicians are free agents, not normal employees, as the business world describes its lackeys. They work separately, on their own, by their own developed methods, then come together to produce great music at rehearsals. They have been selected because they are capable of this particular ability to assimilate into one great sound. Few human beings are capable of this. Respect must flow in both directions or both musicians and orchestra suffer the consequences!

        • Mel Cadman says:

          I don’t think a musician, no matter how able and gifted, is entitled to regard him or her self as occupying a position totally different from other employees. As I understand it the RCO provides orchestral members with considerable authority to decide its contracts with musicians and, presumably, had decided in similar fashion how to deal with this particular situation. If she believes her talent enables her to flaunt collective interests in preference to her own, parting company in this way seems appropriate. The orchestra’s outstanding reputation has to take precedence.

      • Donna Pasquale says:

        You must have been a great boss. In the 19th century that is.

    • Sarah Hearn-vonFoerster says:

      If an orchestra wishes to retain talented musicians, leadership must allow for personal growth, as well. The musicians are not the orchestra: the orchestra is its musicians. Without them, there is nothing. As much as I have always respected the Concertgebouw, this was a bad decision!

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        This solistic-minded ex-tutti player will very probably be replaced by one who understands what it means to be a tutti player and not complain when they cannot gig privately whenever they want. She’ll certainly have more freedom to do that in Brussels, so good for her.

        Orchestras need rules and structure, otherwise they cannot function. This has nothing to do with suppressing talent and everything to do with just plain common sense.

    • Robert Stanton says:

      “Thinked” seriously! Comments DQ.

      • Tiredofitall says:

        There are fewer multilingual people in the world than there are a-holes.

        • Bone says:

          I dunno, errybody I meet from another country seems to be fluent in several languages…but the a**hole population certainly seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

  • Simpson says:

    Not sure what the problem is. There are rules. You don’t want to accept what the rules are – you go elsewhere and do something else if you can get it. It is a free marketplace out there. I can’t see why the Dutch would need to budge.

    • Tweettweet says:

      Well, that’s what she did, didn’t she? If I were the orchestra, I would allow her to play 50% or 60% of the time. Actually, I’m not sure if the orchestra has followed the rules well, as according to Dutch law, there should be really good arguments as why not to grant such a request from the employee to work less.

      • Tamino says:

        It’s exponentially more difficult and binds more resources in admin to schedule part time orchestra employees. Concertgebouw simply doesn’t have to deal with it, there are enough musicians who would die to play there 100%.

        • Tweettweet says:

          It is not. Orchestras always work with substitutes for every concert, no exceptions.

          Besides that, in The Netherlands there are many people working part-time, also in orchestras. She’s playing 80% now, so it would not make so much difference administratively to reduce it to 60%.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        How many other tutti fiddlers in the RCO have this kind of arrangement?

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    Boo-hoo. First off, the name doesn’t ring a bell and will likely be forgotten once this SD post gets off the top three webpages.
    When you’re on a team (having a salaried position) you need to be on the team like everyone else. Sure, you have some little solo gigs, enjoy, but you have a salaried position in an ensemble, which would prove far more stable
    in the long run.

    • Emil says:

      Re. point 1: Not everyone needs to be a mega-giga-supergalactical superstar soloist. The world is full of concertmasters at good orchestras maintaining outstanding national/regional soloist and chamber musician careers. Andrew Wan – concertmaster in Montreal, violinist in the New Orford String Quartet (with Jonathan Crow, Toronto’s concertmaster and Brian Manker, principal Cellist of the OSM, and Sharon Wei), and regular soloist with the OSM and elsewhere – comes to mind. The fact that you don’t know her name might simply mean that you’re not in her core geographical public. Or it could be that she’s a young up-and-coming artist. Or it could be that you should learn her name!

      Re. point 2: that is…exactly her point. She wanted flexibility, they didn’t want to give it to her, she left for a job that gives her flexibility. Not sure what the outrage is. ‘I wanted to stay but we couldn’t agree on conditions’ doesn’t mean ‘The RCO are jerks and I wish them ill’ – it means exactly what it says, namely ‘It’s a great orchestra and we couldn’t make it work’.

      • Gerry Feinsteen says:

        Perhaps you missed this nugget:
        “It’s a shame there’s so little flexibility. All those rules…”

        For an 80% section player, that’s a bit of arrogance. Imagine if 1/4 the violin section had the same attitude. “So little flexibility” [for her to enjoy full time employment on her terms].
        I’ve heard her play now. I think there’s a reason why she’s out of the “geographical core.” Probably didn’t hurt that one of her professors is concertmaster of Concertgebouw.

        Bravo to her for having guts. Bravo to Concertgebouw for being fair to all in a section of many.

        • Emil says:

          The Staatskapelle Dresden is playing Norma in Dresden and Mendelssohn in Luxembourg on the same evening in November. The LPO played a Glyndebourne opera and a London concert simultaneously a few years back. Vienna’s opera orchestra/Philharmonic is literally double size. The Berlin Phil systematically doubles up all principal positions. It’s not exactly as if the precise identity of musicians playing on any given night defines an orchestra, is it?

          • Gerry Feinsteen says:

            I guess you mean to say that the members of the respective orchestras are not ducking out for solo gigs? You’re right, Emil, and that’s why those orchestras can have those simultaneous programs.
            The New Yankees are not the same every game either, but they’re still a team and the pitcher doesn’t step out to play a clown and juggle at Times Square on off days.

  • Patrick says:

    I believe she was a LSO Guest Leader as well. What happened there? The LSO is renowned for flexibility in their string player jobs to enable them to pursue chamber music commitments. It is a fine line. Being public about the RCO though, is unprofessional.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Orchestras are dictatorships. Period.
    She did the right thing.

    • Tamino says:

      Based on that line of “thought”, any salaried full time employment is dictatorship.

      • Russell Edwards says:

        It is .. Don’t think so ? Just step up and tell them you don’t like how things are going and you want change now or else… They own you as long as your there..

  • Jules says:

    From what I read it seems that the orchestra was pretty flexibel with a personal-fitting arrangement? She says she could resign to just return a year later. That’s a sabbatical in practice. I do can understand that they didn’t agree on a real sabbatical immediately after that. To be part of a top orchestra and in the meantime be absent for 1,5 or 2 years because you have other musical priorities doesn’t seem very involved to me.

  • ER says:

    This recalls the reason that Sylvie Guillaume left the Paris Opera. She was unable to get a
    schedule that would allow her to
    do her own projects during six months, or something of that sort.

  • Kees says:

    An orchestra has rules and rules should be applied to everyone equally. She already had some exemptions and still she complains openly about a place that gave her her career. Utterly disgusting and it makes her look like a spoiled prima donna that thinks she is better than she is. She did the right thing to leave, the RCO is better off without her.

    • Tweettweet says:

      She’s absolutely not a prima donna, on the contrary, she is quite a modest personality. I can understand that she feels there is too little flexibility. I’m happy for her that she found a job where she can also develop her chamber music and solo career.

  • Duane Johnson says:

    Is it possible these days for any person to make a clear and simple decision without making it sound like victimization has occurred?

  • torches and pitchforks says:

    An example of how orchestras consume so many financial and human resources that they actually crush culture.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    While I admire her going off to do chamber music and soloing, it sounds to me that the orchestra showed her plenty of flexibility. I just hope it works out for her. I don’t know if she was commuting or not, but Amsterdam is known to be an expensive place to live (what isn’t, these days?).

  • Robert Holmén says:

    It’s good to have options.

    She had options so she took the one that suited her best.

    Good for her.

  • freddynyc says:

    Is there really a need to toady to her silly demands when superbly talented players are a dime a dozen now…….

  • Lars says:

    I’ve seen this many times. There are some musicians who think they are ‘different’ to other employees and require special rules and treatment. More often than not they are completely replaceable in a pragmatic sense and have little perspective of this. After listening patiently to the me, myself and I whinges, orchestras are usually only too happy to say goodbye. Guess what? They find someone who actually wants to do the job!

  • 5566hh says:

    Sounds like they’ve been very inflexible. For such a distinguished musician, they should surely have offered a little more leave.

    • Simpson says:

      Or replace her with someone who will do the job without much fuss and will follow the rules as everyone else. Orchestras are not personal development grounds, they function differently. No one is forced to play there.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      A distinguished musician? I’d rather reserve that term for the likes of Backhaus, Toscanini, Barenboim, Callas, Oistrakh etc

      Given her age, how about ‘a promising talent’?

  • Alma Regina says:

    I think, she did just the right thing! Concertmaster of La Monnaie is a far better job than tutti RCO (that did not seem to value this exceptionally good and young, ambitious member anyway) I think its great she spoke out about it, its important for other aspiring candidates to find out about the different policies that orchestras have. It is always hard to try to make the “right” choice especially when musicians have such unflexible workconditions – from age 35, you can’t change workplace anymore, you are then stuck in the same orchestra until retirement because you do not get audition invitation anymore! (I would actually call this age-discrimination and should not be permitted!)

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Yes, she made the right decision for her and the RCO, despite being very accommodating at the beginning, made the right decision for them.

  • Axl says:

    Despite that I’m a passionated fan of (top)orchestra jobs – I can still understand her a little bit because life change and humans changes.
    But still I think that if musician X is more soloist or freelance type player – he/she should not take auditions to permanet orchestra positions because they are always not the most easiest jobs to fill like e.g. nurses.
    Especially in principal horn or principal viola jobs which are the most difficult orchestra positions to fill – they need 110 % orchestra type players who really want to be in that posts.
    But wishing best to Ms. Huang and hopely she made the right decision and will be happy!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    At the risk of seeming to pile on, the seeds of this young artist’s illogic are contained in her initial comments. “It is of course a fantastic orchestra, everything is luxurious…”

    Exactly. And as George Szell insisted, the way you get to be such an elite orchestra is to have a string section that learns to perform together, to think and breath as one, with the instincts and selflessness of chamber music artists. It’s rare. And once you have it, you don’t want to screw it up.

    NOT in other words a pick-up group with a random and rotating list of freelancers and their substitutes, even if all are superbly equipped. If the entire RCO violin section members were to be given the privileges she seeks, I am sure enough could take advantage of the opportunities that the consequences would quickly become evident.

    Somewhere in some interview, or perhaps in some rehearsal tirade caught on tape, Leonard Bernstein observed that a symphony job “is not a gig.” Dropping in whenever you don’t have a solo or recital engagement makes it a gig.

  • MacroV says:

    It seems most European orchestras are more accommodating of part-time (half-time?) players. At least principals generally play half time, section players perhaps a bit more. Watching the Berlin Phil regularly it’s clear there’s regular rotation even in the string sections (and liberal use of Academy players), but I haven’t figured out what percentage of time a typical section player works.

    But I wouldn’t want them to go as far as the London orchestras; every time I see the LSO on video it seems to be a completely different orchestra.

    In the case of Ms. Huang, a pity it didn’t work out at the Concertgebouw but CM in a major opera orchestra seems like a step up.

  • Nelson says:

    It’s amazing to see how many “experts” there are here on how orchestras are run, and what is required/expected of their members. A little less wild, uninformed speculation, and a LOT more actual knowledge would go a long way here. Why don’t a few of you write to the personnel managers of some major orchestras and try to find out how it actually works??