What is a concertmaster? This is indeed a good question, however, might be better answered by who is the concertmaster? The concertmaster is generally the second in command in an orchestra (next to the conductor). His or her responsibilities include, but are not exclusive to tuning the orchestra before rehearsals and concerts, communicating musical decisions to principles of all sections, playing solo passages when required, making bowing decisions and, in extreme cases, having to conduct the concert! A concertmaster must exhibit fine musical skill, a calm temperament, a strong work ethic and humility. In concert, they are the musician who represents all the orchestral players and shake the conductor’s hand on the players’ behalf. You’ll notice that they enter the stage just before the conductor and sit in the first violin chair, closest to the audience and to the direct left of the conductor.
The role of the concertmaster is demanding. It requires the musician to constantly be on their toes and at any moment be ready to rescue a conductor or the orchestra from disaster! As a liaison between the players, conductor and often the administration, the concertmaster can act as a balance amongst the various interests in the orchestra. His or her job is to see that all orchestra members are happy and clear about the artistic vision of the conductor.
In an interview with HPO concertmaster Stephen Sitarski, he speaks about his background and experiences of being an appointed concertmaster.
What inspired you to play the violin?
In my family I am the youngest of three boys. By the time I was four or five both of my older brothers had begun studying piano and I desperately wished to start. However, with only one piano in the house, I ended up taking up the next most popular instrument–violin. A few years later I did indeed start on piano, but the violin stuck. It is an instrument of great stylistic versatility and expression. The solo, chamber and orchestral music available to violinists is vast, varied and magnificent.
What is your role in the orchestra as concertmaster?
There is actually quite a bit of history entrenched in this position. A few hundred years ago, the size of your typical orchestra was quite a bit smaller and the music was less complex. The prominent violinist of the orchestra would lead the rest of the musicians while playing, often standing in front (hence the term “concertmaster” – i.e. Master/Director of the Concert). As orchestras grew in their numbers of players, and composers developed rhythm, harmony and counterpoint to a much denser and complicated level, it became much less practical for the lead violin player to keep track of everything going on. With the growing number of musicians being used by composers in their orchestral music, someone was required to direct the rhythm and tempo so everyone would play together, and this person would also balance the volume and sound of the different instruments so that the important musical material was able to be heard by the listener. Thus the conductor was born.
The role of today’s concertmaster is, on stage and in rehearsal, to be the chief musician communicator of the conductor’s intentions, both technical and interpretive. This is expressed through physical movements, eye contact and setting the general demeanor for the rest of the orchestra.
Behind the scenes, the concertmaster’s job entails preparing and choosing the style and direction of the string players’ bows upon their instruments.
In addition, I am a member of the Artistic Advisory Committee (which helps plan the programming and basic presentation of the orchestra) and the audition committee (which choose the musicians who will fill opening positions in the core membership). I also advise the personnel manager on whom to hire as extras and substitutes among the violin sections.
When a social event honouring or involving the orchestra is held, it is often the concertmaster who is invited to represent the rest of the musicians of the orchestra.
What do you find is the greatest challenge in your role as concertmaster?
Within limited rehearsal time, a great challenge is to make quick adjustments that better reflect the conductor’s intentions/instructions. Also, accepting and adapting to a conductor’s musical style that differs significantly from my own can be a challenge.
Do have any particularly memorable moment(s) as concertmaster?
Certainly, when nearly everything goes right in a performance it is always memorable, as there are so many aspects that can falter in some way. Watching and listening to so many wonderful soloists from close up is thrilling.
In 2005, I had the incredible privilege of being invited to be the guest concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony for the 75th birthday tour concerts by legendary Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. Unforgettable.
What is your personal favorite orchestral work to play?
An impossible question to answer!
We orchestra musicians are incredibly blessed with an almost unending repertoire of astonishing works of musical art. Throughout my diverse career I have become fond of too many pieces to list!