Orchestra Victoria Blog

Following the Leader: The Concertmaster’s Job in an Opera Ballet Orchestra

Posted on 25 July 2020 by Megan Steller

All eyes on you: that’s what you feel when you’re sitting up the front in the concertmaster’s chair in an orchestra. But what is a concertmaster? Why are they in charge? And what does it mean to be a good leader in an opera and ballet orchestra? I set out to find some answers from five of the concertmasters that have steered the good ship Orchestra Victoria since 1986.

Every concertmaster is different; their changing styles of leadership and performance are what makes each stand out, but all agree on the pillars of the job. To be a great concertmaster, I learned, you need to be direct, have respect and be respected, and be a good listener, both musically and personally. All that on top of being world-class at your instrument. It is not, whichever way you look at it, an easy job. But first, I had to figure out what on earth a concertmaster actually does. They are the second in command to the conductor, of course, and they seem to get their own bow at the end of a concert performance, but what does the job entail? In the simplest terms, they are the instrumentalist who sit right at the front of the orchestra, leading both the first violins and the entire ensemble. They are a conduit between the conductor and the ensemble, helping to communicate musical intent from the front of the pit to the back. And when the curtain comes down, they are leaders in other contexts too: offstage.

For Jo Beaumont, the Artistic Director and Concertmaster between 2000 and 2010, leading an orchestra is about both sides of the equation: the music, and the ambassadorship of your ensemble. Before returning to Australia to helm Orchestra Victoria, she was the Associate Concertmaster at Orchestra del Teatro La Scala in Milan, one of the greatest opera and ballet houses in the world. She says, “it is extremely important to be very well prepared, to be disciplined”. Equally, though, “you must work at gaining respect from your fellow musicians”. “They have to be able to trust you and you must be able to communicate well”, so you can act as their advocate and leader.

When I asked Jo her top tips for going into a first rehearsal of a project, whether it be opera or ballet, she said “you have to introduce yourself immediately to the conductor, especially if they are a guest to the orchestra. Make them feel at home as much as possible; the quicker you can forge a good relationship, the better the whole experience will be. You become the musical advocate for the orchestra as soon as the conductor is in the room, so you must let them know they can approach you with questions or concerns”; it is crucial that, “they feel comfortable asking you for help if they need it”.

Principal Bass Trombone, Benjamin Anderson, photographed in Bendigo

Photo James Geer
The Story Continues...

For Rob John, Orchestra Victoria’s concertmaster from 1989 to 1998, good leadership means understanding the fundamentals and challenges for all players in the orchestra. For him it begins not at the front in a leadership position, but at the back. “Having an understanding of what it is like to play at the back of the [violin] section is an important skill in the pit”, Rob says. Playing at the back of the section gives you, geographically, a different idea of the score – consider it a different position on a football field, like playing as a fullback when you usually play on the wing. Both are crucial to the game, but you get different views of the field, depending on which you play. Learning how to sit at the back of the section gives you the best idea of how to deal “with continual changes in tempo” that can be found in “large swathes of (opera and ballet) repertoire.”

Tony Conolan, whose tenure with the orchestra as concertmaster began in 1986 before also taking on the role of Artistic Advisor, believes that “the ideal concertmaster is a combination of Yehudi Menuhin (a musician widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century) and Nelson Mandela… The concertmaster has always been the ultimate multitasker. They must be (first and foremost) an exceptional violin soloist, and they are the go-between for the orchestra and the conductor. They are responsible for the discipline of the players and they are instrumental in maintaining the standard of playing of the orchestra.” The concertmaster Adam Chalabi, who held the position from 2009 to 2014, echoes Jo’s thoughts about communication: “it is important for a Concertmaster to be honest, straightforward and courteous in all dealings with colleagues and conductors. There are often difficult discussions to be had but if you engage with them in a proactive and productive manner then there are normally good outcomes.”

While you can use some of the same methods of non-musical leadership regardless of the type of project, it’s important to understand the different genre imperatives of opera and ballet and the consequent differening demands on the Concertmaster and the orchestra. In ballet, according to Jo, “it’s imperative to follow the conductor closely. You must trust them: if you see the conductor suddenly change tempo, it’s because they’re watching the stage, and they’ve noticed something you haven’t. Go with them, but make sure you then have the right body language to signal that sudden change to the wider orchestra”. It can’t be easy sitting in front of an ensemble as big as an orchestra and having to ensure you were making the right moves to communicate your musical thoughts. Jo and Rob both ascribe to the ‘less is more’ principle in communicating requisite changes through bodily movement. Jo tries “not to make too much movement generally, because then when I need to communicate something quickly, I know that my quick movement will be obvious enough to the other players”. I wondered if Jo remembered the first time she led an orchestra in a ballet: “I remember a Czerny ballet (Etudes, choreographed by Harald Lander to piano studies by the composer), variations that were extremely difficult to play. I was terrified; you couldn’t rely on just getting through the piece at one tempo.” Jo says that no matter how you’re feeling, you have to focus on “being easy to follow. Breathe with your movements, so the orchestra can then breathe with you.”

In opera, the Concertmaster is still acting as a conduit between conductor and players but also between singers, conductor and the orchestra. It’s a tricky balancing act between being both a leader and a follower. To be successful in opera, a Concertmaster must understand the way singers breathe and phrase and the importance of balance between stage and pit. Complex enough? Then add physical stamina and intense concentration. Tony says, “you are trying to accompany singers that you can’t see and sometimes can’t hear. Operas frequently last up to four hours or longer. While the singers are on stage for only part of the time, the orchestra must keep going regardless. Adam notes that, whilst operas are demanding there are great rewards: “This necessary rigour can lead to the most magical moments.” “The best opera I played was a very intense La boheme with Christian Badea (an acclaimed opera conductor). The orchestra played so well for him and we all felt like soloists”.

Of course, across the many hours of eight performances a week, there are the times that don’t go so well: when the curtain gets stuck and the audience is rowdy and the soloist arrives late? All those foibles and accidents? What does the Concertmaster do then? We’ll tell you those stories another time!


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