Be Our Guest

By Lee, Louise | Strings, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Be Our Guest


Lee, Louise, Strings


GUEST CONCERT MASTERS ARE THE BENEFICIARIES OF A RADICAL EXPERIMENT IN THE ORCHESTRAL WORLD

In January, Alexander Kerr led the violins of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in performances of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem and

Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess. Then Kerr disappeared, heading back to his regular job on the faculty at Indiana University until he was due to return to Indianapolis five weeks later to lead the section once again. In the intervening time, the ensemble continued business as usual, performing under its regular concertmaster, Zach De Pue.

Kerr is the orchestra's principal guest concertmaster, a job the group created in 2007. In that capacity, Kerr has the concertmaster position for the handful of concerts each season when De Pue is away performing with his chamber ensemble, Time for Three. It's an unusual arrangement. Of course, practically all orchestras that are auditioning violinists for the top job ask them to perform as guests for a concert cycle or two as part of the tryout. But only a handful of orchestras have guest concertmasters - outsiders who arrive, sometimes from across the country, to sit in the position for a few scheduled concert cycles throughout the season.

The use of principal guest concertmasters suggests that a handful of orchestras are starting to experiment with the duties and privileges associated with the position of first chair of the first violins. Traditionally, orchestras have one concertmaster and an assistant who might sit in the first chair in run-out concerts or step up in a regular concert if the concertmaster is ill. But having a concertmaster plus a regular designated guest opens a range of artistic possibilities - some constructive and others perhaps less so, for the concertmaster, the guest, and the group as a whole. Unlike an assistant concertmaster, a guest doesn't rehearse and play with the group week in and week out. This difference is a blessing and a curse, say both conductors and players.

One reason an orchestra uses a guest concertmaster is the potential for artistic variety and cross-fertilization. Concertmasters each have individual styles and can add unexpected spark, especially to solo passages, thereby engaging the ensemble and perking up the authence. Some orchestra players say an occasional change in concertmasters can keep members on their toes and discourage complacency.

After a period of using four rotating concertmasters, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, in the fall of 2008, appointed one, Maria Larionoff, as concertmaster and named the three others - Frank Almond, Ani Kavafian, and Emmanuelle Boisvert - as regular guests. Each guest comes to Seattle and plays several cycles during the season. "Everyone who is a great artist or concertmaster has something special to offer," says Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, who compares a guest concertmaster to a guest conductor who brings new ideas. The guest-concertmaster rotation "has been a tremendous artistic success," he says.

From Schwarz's view, having a guest benefits an orchestra's regular concertmaster, who bears the burden of leading the group through new and unfamiliar works as well as the orchestral staples. "Preparing all the repertoire week after week is extremely difficult" for one person, Schwarz says. "Each guest concertmaster who comes in is thoroughly focused on that program," giving the regular leader a break.

Having a guest position also frees the concertmaster to take weeks off to pursue other musical interests. Although on the surface, that privilege appears to benefit only the concertmaster, some insist that letting the concertmaster pursue a solo or chamber career on the side can raise the profile of the group, since his or her association with the orchestra will invariably come up in the course of outside activities. "First-class players always will have work or activities as a soloist or chamber musician and will want to travel or be away," says Mario Venzago, conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony. …

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