HPO Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson Schulte recently caught up (virtually) with HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski to talk about his career, mental health and the future of orchestral performance.
Abigail Richardson-Schulte: Hi Steve! How are you doing at this time and what are you up to?
Stephen Sitarski: The short answer is that my wife Sophie (who is also a professional violinist and a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) and I are physically healthy and trying to live frugally and simply. We are nature foragers and springtime is a great time to find all kinds of edible wild plants. Sophie is a phenomenal cook and has taken on the responsibility of food management. We have planted vegetables and herbs for summer eating.
And, unless something changes dramatically, we are able to pay our bills. Electricity, water, gas, and other necessities are available to us, which is still far better than many places in the world.
Emotionally and spiritually it’s been a strange time. We’ve both dedicated more than 30 years of our lives to the art of live musical performances. To have this activity suspended is extremely surreal as nearly all musicians are partially humanly defined by their musical pursuits. In order to even become a professional level player one needs to begin at a very young age, and the discipline and work ethic required shapes us for life. So when your lifelong passion has been removed, even temporarily, there is a feeling of emptiness inside.
ARS: Let’s hope it won’t be too long before we can start live performances. Now, you’re pretty active on social media. It seems like that is the only outlet for musicians these days. Have you seen anything really great by your colleagues?
SS: There is certainly no shortage of musical content on the internet – there never was, especially with YouTube becoming available 10 or so years ago. With newer technology, it is now possible to record, process, and download performances from almost anywhere. Some of my colleagues from around the world have embraced this, but it isn’t something that I’m particularly comfortable with at the moment. I have participated in one project (which will likely be released publicly in a few days) but generally, the whole process doesn’t feel right to me somehow. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a lot of respect and admiration for what many fellow musicians are doing. Lance Ouellete, for example, has become quite adept at using this technology.
ARS: You have participated in the Wellbeing Initiative of the HPO. I’m particularly concerned about the mental health of musicians and artists at this trying time. Do you have any thoughts on this topic and what organizations and audiences might do to help?
SS: This is a critical topic of utmost importance. Musicians are by and large ’tapped into’ their emotions: it’s partly why we were attracted to music early on, and why we are effective performers. Our task is to try to understand the crux of a composer’s creation and then effectively communicate that aesthetic to an audience. Most music is designed for either pure entertainment, to embody emotions and ideas, or perhaps to commemorate an occasion. In order to convey the appropriate meaning, musicians need to be closely in touch with their own feelings.
In this pandemic shutdown, it is easy for us to feel redundant. After all, the very thing which makes us ‘tick’ has been removed from our lives. Many different stages of grief haunt me depending on how I’m feeling at any particular time. Sadness, confusion, anger, helplessness, and apathy all contribute to feelings of distress, nihilism, and even depression. And I’m not really even going into the terrors of financial difficulties and an uncertain future. Many young musicians who are less established are feeling a lot of angst at the moment.
My thoughts on this are that we need to reach out and ensure that our friends and colleagues are doing okay and that we care about each other. The internet is phenomenal for allowing us to communicate on both intimate and public forums.
Music patrons and audiences can help by either outright donating to struggling artists, and/or pledging to attend concerts when they are safe again, or simply by watching or buying the products that are available now. Hopefully, by now, most of the general public understands how important live music is to a healthy society. It is magical, and when the gift of live music is taken away, even briefly, our communities are poorer.
Nearly all classical musicians became professional artists because of their love for the art – few of us earn lots of money for all of our talents, work, and dedication.
ARS: Thank you for sharing your experiences so candidly – it is so important to have these conversations about mental health and wellness of musicians, especially now.
I hope our community will be supportive as we return in various stages. Besides being Concertmaster of the HPO, you are also Concertmaster of Esprit Orchestra, a new music orchestra in Toronto. Just how much extra work is there behind the scenes in a job like Concertmaster and what is that work? Also, the Concertmaster is leader of not only the violins and strings but the whole orchestra. Do you have a strategy for leadership?
SS: This is a difficult question to answer, as so much depends on the music programmed for each specific concert. Suffice to say that the value of any leader is gauged by how confidently prepared that person is to be helpful. So whatever I can do to make an orchestra musician’s task easier, I will try to do. Preparing the music as much as possible in advance of rehearsals so that players can practice and prepare properly greatly enhances the efficiency of the rehearsal process. And in rehearsals and concerts, it’s crucial to physically show information that facilitates each player’s ability to perform at their best. Most of this responsibility is realized through good, honest work. One must listen to the pieces thoroughly (unless it is a brand new work) and then play through the music as many times as necessary to ensure that any and all musical and technical ‘problems’ are solved. The better I do my job, the more satisfaction players will feel, and this subsequently improves the quality level of the rehearsals and performances.
ARS: What do you think about some of these old orchestra traditions like the Concertmaster entry, no clapping between movements and the “penguin suit”? Should we be holding on to these traditions?
SS: Ah yes, traditions… I’m not wholly for or against them purely on their own existence. Like most things in life, it doesn’t hurt to question how things have been done previously to ascertain any past or current merits. I have a balanced view. Firstly, the music itself should be paramount. Any traditions should always be weighed on the metric of how it serves the musical experience of both artist and audience.
Personally, I don’t enjoy the Concertmaster ‘walk-on’ just prior to the tuning of the orchestra, but it can contribute to the sense of occasion. It is a formality that I could take or leave.
The ‘clapping between movements’ situation actually has an interesting history. At the time that much of the most well-known orchestral music was composed, it was much rarer to hear repeat performances of pieces. There were no recordings, radios, internet, etc. through which people could familiarize themselves with specific pieces. Much of the time a concert would only have newly written music that no one other than the composer and performers would have known. So it was fairly commonplace for audiences to respond much more spontaneously to what they were seeing/hearing at that very moment. There are numerous accounts of how audiences would burst out in applause or even cheering IN THE MIDDLE OF A PIECE if something really excited them.
Then, as performing rituals became more formal, the applause was discouraged until the final note of a piece was finished. As broadcasting became more frequent, this may have been another reason to keep noises to a minimum until the end. In any case, we went from one extreme to the other. Now perhaps it’s time to balance somewhere closer to the middle. Patrons should not feel inhibited, but should also be aware of their actions on fellow audience members, and the musicians. Unless the music is pops or jazz, and it is appropriate to applaud a musician’s solo, generally it’s not encouraged to interrupt the flow of a piece in the middle. Just common sense. I do believe that for certain repertoire (Mahler symphonies for example) it greatly enhances one’s experience if one allows the entire work to be performed without applause. In these cases, I would always recommend that the audience be informed of this usually by the conductor before the piece is performed. Audiences will feel much more comfortable knowing how and when they should respond.
As for concert attire, the only thing that is truly important here is to dress in such a way as to not distract from enjoying the music. This is typically why we dress in only black and white – there are fewer distractions. That said, are formal tailcoats and tuxedos and full-length gowns really necessary for an audience’s appreciation of the music? Personally I don’t think so. Many orchestras have been experimenting with various uniforms, more stylized presentations, and even far more casual wear. But if the discussion after a concert was more about the clothes than the music…
ARS: Can you tell us about your instrument and bow?
SS: Since September, 2019, I have been using a newly made violin from Flesherton, Ontario, by David Prentice. I use two violin bows regularly: one is an old French-made bow by Vigneron, and the other was made by French Canadian François Malo around 25 years ago.
ARS: Can you share a memorable moment or two from your time at the HPO?
SS: So many great memories. Mahler 5, Holst The Planets, Scheherazade, Petroushka, the list goes on and on! Seriously, we have something incredibly special going on with the HPO. It is indeed rare for a group that doesn’t have the opportunity to work together on a weekly basis to perform so well and cohesively. There is a genuine love of colleagues that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The desire to create wonderful sounds as a team is pervasive. I can’t say enough great things about my amazing HPO colleagues.
And of course, we wouldn’t be as good as we are without solid leadership from Music Director Gemma New, Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte, and the super administrative staff and volunteers. Without all of their efforts, we would not be as successful.
ARS: From throughout your career as a Concertmaster, have you ever had any surprising situations happen onstage?
SS: Many odd things have happened on stage over the years some of which were noticeable to the audience and some that only the performers were aware of. One of the most public instances that I can recall is when I was Concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. A wonderful solo violinist was performing a Saint-Saens concerto and at the beginning of the final movement, she accidentally hit the bridge of her violin with her bow, causing it to be knocked out of place. Wearing a gown, and having nowhere to put her bow down, she turned to me for assistance. So, with the entire auditorium watching, I took her Stradivarius violin, loosened the strings, adjusted the bridge back to its proper place, tuned up the strings, and handed her back her instrument.
We began the final movement again, and to her credit, she played flawlessly right to the very end.
ARS: What a great story! Lastly, do you imagine our classical music world continuing as it has or do we need to adapt the way we present classical music?
SS: This question is similar to the one regarding traditions. I hope that the ritual of live music performances in an acoustically excellent auditorium for a shared group of interested patrons never goes away. That experience represents such an important aspect of the expression of our humanity. Recreating a masterpiece by a genius composer in real-time is a transcendent experience for both the performers and audiences. That said, we cannot ignore what new technology has presented to us. The ability to manipulate musical sounds electronically, plus the new media from which we experience music will certainly chart a different course for ‘classical’ music. We are seeing amazing musical collaborations done by people halfway around the world from each other. Early on in the pandemic shutdown we saw and heard the Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony Orchestras perform a piece in which every single musician played their part from their own homes, and then these dozens of videos were lined up to create a huge orchestra. Will this technique become common from now on? Who knows?
But in the end, these immortal elements shouldn’t ever change: the genius of expertly crafted instruments whose architectural designs have been perfected over hundreds of years; musicians who have dedicated their lives to producing ethereal sounds with those instruments; the added vision of a composer who organizes the sounds of these players; and finally a keen audience as witness.
ARS: Thank you, Stephen! We look forward to seeing you at the concert hall again soon.
Stephen discusses his experience as a professional musician with depression in this 2018 article from The Wholenote.
HPO blog: What is a Concertmaster?