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Originally published September 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Symphony plays musical chairs

It's been a month since the Seattle Symphony made international headlines with the announcement that it would become the first American orchestra with four permanent concertmasters.

Seattle Times music critic

It's been a month since the Seattle Symphony made international headlines with the announcement that it would become the first American orchestra with four permanent concertmasters. And although the orchestra's first season with the quartet was launched earlier this month, it will be a long time before it's clear how well this groundbreaking arrangement works. Will it be a season of musical chairs, with inconsistent leadership and a series of communications challenges? Or one in which the four violinists energize the strings and the orchestra as a whole with new musical leadership?

Not surprisingly, the man who came up with this idea — music director Gerard Schwarz — is betting on the latter outcome. Asked about the fallout from his decision to hire noted chamber musician and teacher Ani Kavafian, Detroit Symphony concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert, Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster Frank Almond and the Seattle Symphony's Maria Larionoff as the concertmasters, Schwarz says: "The only fallout has been that Strad Magazine called me for a story, and everyone has been extremely excited."

Even Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist who soloed with the Symphony Sept. 15, is on board with the idea, says Schwarz, adding, he "thought it was the most brilliant thing he'd ever heard. The response everywhere has been phenomenal."

As Schwarz points out, "People who are unhappy with the decision haven't contacted me." Several such people have contacted this writer, but none will go public with their misgivings. A common theme among some is the belief that the quartet of concertmasters is really a way of eventually angling Larionoff into the job full-time.

Schwarz says that's nonsense.

"I have never done anything for other reasons than musical," he says. "If I had wanted to give the job to Maria, I would have. I have nothing to lose [by doing so]. I'm not interested in politics."

Larionoff, who had not been a candidate for the permanent concertmaster position although she was acting concertmaster during the three-year search, says she was surprised when Schwarz contacted her in June and said, "I'm going to hire four people, and you're one."

When the search began, Larionoff says Schwarz asked her whether she was interested. The answer was no.

"I'd rather find somebody really great and inspiring, and get inspired myself," Larionoff says. "When you sit 6 inches to the left of that chair, the stress level and preparedness level drops quite a bit. The concertmaster is responsible for so much — like looking at the conductor [during concerts] and thinking, 'I think he's going to do this.' There's a lot of stress involved."

Larionoff calls the four-way arrangement "good for everybody. The concertmasters can all go off and do other things. I think it'll work very well. Yes, this is the first time an American orchestra has tried this — though Indianapolis has two concertmasters. But Seattle is a groundbreaking place."

The disadvantages of having four concertmasters — three of them out of town most of the time — also are clear. Rather than a single influential leader and a unified approach to playing, the strings now will have four leaders of different experience levels, whose views and styles are unlikely to be completely consistent with each other. There also may be some contractual issues in the musicians' very complex labor agreement that could make the four-way arrangement more complicated.

Throughout the long concertmaster search, Larionoff was acting concertmaster whenever one of the guest concertmasters wasn't there, and she says she has enjoyed leading — but also enjoyed "sitting second when a great player is leading."

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Such a player is Ani Kavafian, the dynamic violinist whose appointment was the biggest surprise among the candidates. She never emerged as an applicant for the concertmaster spot; Kavafian hadn't been a concertmaster since her student days in the Juilliard Orchestra. She has made her career, and it is a stellar one, with chamber music, solo appearances and teaching. She was here earlier this month to open the Seattle Symphony's concert season.

A beloved figure in Seattle from her years with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's residencies here, and later appearances with the Seattle Chamber Music Society and The American String Project, Kavafian also had a residency at the University of Washington last season. Her son, a recent University of Puget Sound graduate, lives in Tacoma and says she has a lot of happy memories of this region.

"My association with Seattle is great; I just love this town. The orchestra has been very nice to me. Of course, this is the honeymoon! But I am finding the [orchestral] repertoire amazing and very hard — it's really difficult. I have a newfound respect for these musicians, because the music is harder than a lot of the chamber music I've played, for sure."

Like the other out-of-town concertmasters, Kavafian is keeping her regular job (full-time as a professor at Yale University), but will come here during available dates on her schedule — school vacations and occasions when she can make the necessary arrangements with students.

"I've known Jerry [Schwarz] for so many years as a trumpet player and did a recording with him years ago. But I hadn't seen him conduct. When he got the [four-concertmaster] idea, I thought I could organize my life for a few weeks a year in Seattle. I might be able to do more next year; I don't know yet."

The orchestral experience will be a great benefit to her teaching, Kavafian believes, because she is learning orchestral repertoire and how orchestras work.

For Kavafian, the four-way split of the concertmaster job is "a very workable idea. I hope it is OK with the orchestra; some probably like it, and some don't. It's a jigsaw puzzle for scheduling, but I think it's a good solution. I really don't see this as a fluky thing; it has the potential of re-exciting the orchestra with new faces. We'll see how the orchestra feels."

For now, Kavafian explains that the symphony feels "like a really big chamber group. This is making me a better player; as I get older, I want to stretch out more. It's a new phase in my life."

Three of the four concertmasters — Larionoff, Kavafian and Almond — are linked by The American String Project, founded by Larionoff's husband, Barry Lieberman. (During her recent Seattle stay, Kavafian stayed at the Lieberman/Larionoff home.) There are other links; Kavafian calls Boisvert "a fellow Detroiter — that's where I'm from — and I have a lot of respect for her."

Three of the four also are women, a fact that Larionoff finds purely coincidental.

"The concertmaster job is genderless," she explains. "Gender has nothing to do with leadership."

Larionoff says that Kavafian and she share another element besides the concertmaster chair: a passion for shopping.

"The Consumer Spending Index rose last week when Ani was here," she jokes. "Nordstrom stock probably went up."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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