On Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic announced that violinist Frank Huang will become its new concertmaster, succeeding Glenn Dicterow who stepped down last June after 34 seasons.
The 36-year-old Huang is currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. He has held that position since 2010. Before joining the Houston Symphony, he briefly served as first violinist of the Ying Quartet and professor of violin and chamber music at the Eastman School of Music. He was a student of Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Frank Huang was born in China. When he was 7 years old, his family relocated from Beijing to the Houston suburbs.
Frank Huang’s solo career was launched after he won first prize in the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the 2003 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. A 2003 recording released on the Naxos label features this performance of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.
Here is Huang performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 for Houston Public Radio’s The Front Row. He is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.
The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today.
I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Eastman Philharmonia was a memorable childhood concert experience. In his youth, the Hungarian-born conductor studied piano with Béla Bartók. Solti served as music director of the Chicago Symphony between 1969 and 1991 and remained the orchestra’s “Music Director Laureate” until his death in 1997. Over the course of his career, he won thirty-one Grammy Awards, more than any other recording artist.
As this clip demonstrates, a strict sense of rhythm and attention to the relationship of tempo to style seem to have been essential ingredients in Solti’s artistry. Solti’s interpretations were never fussy and always allowed the music to develop honestly.
The best conductors know when to get out of the way. They have an intuitive sense for those rare moments when the music is cooking along on its own and they allow it to blossom. Expressive power grows from economy. The big gesture means more when it’s reserved for the right moment. On one level, conducting involves a mysterious “give and take” between the ensemble and the person on the podium. In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is defined as:
[quote]an object or type of material that permits the flow of electric charges in one or more directions. [/quote]
In many ways, a similar process is occurring with a musical conductor, except with a different type of energy.
Fritz Reiner, the legendary music director of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s and 60s, was famous for a small beat pattern, as this excerpt of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shows. In Chicago, the result was laser precision and attention to the smallest detail.
Recently, I ran across this humorous clip of Finnish conductor and composer (of 270 symphonies and counting), Leif Segerstam leading the Gothenburg Symphony in the Alla Marcia from Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. Watch what Segerstam does around the 0:28 mark and listen to the joy and freedom in the sound and phrasing of the orchestra. It’s a great illustration of the power of trusting and letting go:
Great orchestras gradually develop a unique sound and style of playing. This process takes place over time as conductors come and go, leaving their mark and new players are gradually assimilated. In the days when I was traveling between many orchestras as a free-lance violinist I could sense the “soul” of each organization. The ongoing lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra is tragic and frightening because it may ultimately show how quickly a great orchestra with a 110 year tradition can be destroyed. If you’re not familiar with the situation, take a look at this list of recent blog posts:
The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.
A few years ago an enthusiastic audience member approached me after a concert.
“I used to play a little clarinet in high school,” she said. “How do I get into the Richmond Symphony?”
I explained the long, hard road I had traveled to become a professional musician. Then, with a look of confusion she said, “But you can’t actually make a living doing this, can you?”
Conversations like this reveal the disconnect between real life in a professional orchestra and popular perception. Dabbling in science does not qualify someone to be a cancer researcher and playing high school sports does not automatically lead to a career in the NBA. Similarly, no one who has won a job in a professional orchestra plays their instrument “a little.”
Preparing for a professional career begins long before senior year in high school. As a teenager I practiced many hours a day and, although I did well in school, the violin became my highest priority. I knew that I would face intense competition at the audition to get into a top music conservatory such as the Eastman School of Music.
During my six years in music school I began spending hours each day working on the orchestral excerpts that would be required for orchestra auditions. It’s not uncommon for over a hundred applicants from across the country to show up to audition for one position. Auditions are held behind a screen so the committee (made up of members of the orchestra and the Music Director) cannot tell the identity of the applicant. Applicants are assigned a number and at the end of each round only a few players are selected to continue. In order to be competitive, musicians must be able to perform well under stress. A significant investment in a good instrument is also important. This article offers a closer look at the audition experience.
Most of the time professional musicians make their jobs look easy and many people assume that they are having “fun.” Jeremy Mastrangelo and Holly Mulcahy have written excellent articles that shatter this myth by offering a glimpse at the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
While amateurs and students have weeks to prepare a concert, professionals often have one or more programs to prepare each week. Rehearsals (which usually last two and a half hours with a fifteen minute break and always begin and end on time to the second) are only part of the professional musician’s work day. The other part involves hours of personal practice and preparation at home. Long hours of playing each day put musicians at risk of developing injuries like tendonitis and create other physical stress. Similar to athletes, professional musicians often structure their day to ensure that they will be at their best at concert time.
The polished sound of a professional orchestra does not happen by accident. It’s the result of years of hard work on the part of its members. As a professional orchestra musician I consider myself lucky to do something that I find so gratifying. At the same time, there is no part of playing professionally that is “fun” in a recreational sense. It’s still a job.
In 2006 Drew McManus asked me to contribute an article to his annual Take A Friend To The Orchestra series. Widely regarded as an industry expert, Drew is a respected orchestra consultant and the author of the popular blog, Adaptistration. Soliciting ideas from a wide range of perspectives within the music business, Take A Friend To The Orchestra (TAFTO) tackles the challenge of introducing orchestral music to people who are not in the habit of regularly attending concerts. It’s easy to get inspired by the many great articles in this series.
[quote]A TAFTO initiative simply isn’t complete without a contribution from a real live, orchestra musician. This year’s contribution comes from Timothy Judd, a violinist in the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. If you’re interested in seeing the issues of audience development from the eyes of a professional orchestra musician and like straightforward, detailed ideas then this is your article…[/quote] –Drew McManus
TAFTO 2006 Contribution
By: Timothy Judd
As an orchestral violinist, I follow a routine before concerts. I usually leave home about an hour before the downbeat and swing by Starbucks for my caffeine fix. Dressed in a penguin suit, violin case in hand, I quickly realize that I am a walking advertisement for my orchestra. Sometimes, it garners a number of unsolicited questions and interest. A woman stops to ask me what instrument is in the case. The man behind the counter enthusiastically tells me that he played the violin in his school orchestra.
These occasional conversations have led me to the conclusion that there are more people interested in classical music than we see in the concert hall. Live orchestral music is a great product, but it doesn’t sell itself. As a musician, I believe it is my responsibility to not only play great music but also to help others discover why it is so exciting. This includes fighting for high quality music education in all of our public schools so students can experience classical music at an early age.
Before taking friends to the orchestra for the first time, it might be interesting to find out if they have any perceptions of classical music. I’ve encountered people who assume classical music is stuffy, highbrow and hard to understand. Some even tell me that they see themselves more as a “NASCAR person” than a “symphony person.”
So how do you go about shattering these stereotypes? First, help your friends understand that classical music isn’t about dressing up and showing that you know when to clap at the right times. I go to concerts because listening to classical music is fun! This music has stood the test of time and it belongs to everyone.
Maybe you could show how music relates to other activities your friends enjoy. If they enjoy watching a NASCAR race because of the speed, power and excitement, try showing them how they might get the same feeling of excitement and motion by listening to “A Short Ride In A Fast Machine” by John Adams or “Pacific 231” by Arthur Honegger or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There’s no reason why people can’t appreciate both sports and classical music. As a matter of fact, I even know some musicians in my orchestra who are NASCAR fans.
Before the concert, give your friends some insights into how you listen to music. If they try to approach an orchestra concert like they would a rock concert they may end up disappointed. Unlike a rock concert, which relies on spectacle and audience participation, an orchestra concert requires you to focus and really listen. Like looking at visual art in a museum, the more attention you give to the music, the more you will get out of it.
At the same time, don’t get upset if your friends enjoy aspects of the concert experience that you consider shallow. Audiences have always been captivated by flashy, charismatic soloists and daredevil displays of technique and the stories of women fainting at concerts given by virtuosos like Franz Liszt and Paganini (whether true or not) make today’s concerts seem tame.
In the end it is important to let the music stand on its own. However, don’t be afraid to share interesting facts about the composers with people who are new to classical music. These details may help them to pay more attention to the music. For example, Mozart’s First Symphony seems like just another symphony until you consider that he wrote it when he was eight years old. Beethoven’s music sounds even more shocking when you realize that the people first hearing it were expecting it to sound like Haydn.
Don’t expect your friends to be able to start out listening to a whole forty minute symphony with the same level of enthusiasm you experience. Instead, get a recording of the piece you will hear at the concert and play your favorite parts a few times. Tell your friends why you like these sections and see if they can find them in the live performance.
Most importantly, let your friends see your enthusiasm for the music and remember that sometimes one concert is all it take takes to hook someone on classical music. I still remember my parents taking me to David Zinman’s last concert as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra when I was around ten years old. The orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” For many Saturday mornings after that I awakened my parents with sounds of Mahler blasting from the stereo. I hope my friends at Starbucks are equally inspired.