“Guess who this trunk used to belong to?” asks Glenn Dicterow, Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, as he leads me through the backstage rooms and hallways of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall—his home away from home, only a New York block away.
We are standing in front of a huge, antique—or at least old-fashioned —weathered-looking black trunk, impressively marked with travel stickers indicating its many different destinations.
“…long history with the New York Phil…” he coaxes me into guessing the celebrity, whose travel companion the trunk had been before it was given to Dicterow to hold the concertmaster’s possessions on his trips with the orchestra.
“Yes, you guessed right.” He turns back to me, “It’s finished with a red velvet interior and belonged to none other than—Leonard Bernstein.”
Since he joined the New York Philharmonic as Concertmaster in 1980, Dicterow has played first fiddle under the preeminent Maestros who have served as the New York Philharmonic Music Directors’ Guest Conductors from around the world, and with leading soloists.
Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and now Alan Gilbert—here is a true collective of singular personalities, with different temperaments and musical expectations. It can’t be an easy task to appease all of these charismatic leaders and keep one’s own integrity, let alone one’s own sanity.
Yet, thanks to his remarkably generous spirit, it seems that Dicterow has managed to do just that, highly successfully.
On the faculty of the Juilliard School and as acting chairman of the innovative Manhattan School of Music’s Orchestral Performance Program, Dicterow also follows his other vocation: music education.
In addition, he performs regularly as a guest soloist and has a varied discography of chamber and solo recordings to show for it. In collaboration with his wife, violist Karen Dreyfus, who is equally involved in teaching, he co-founded the Lyric Piano Quartet, in residence at Queens College of the City University of New York; together with Dreyfus and Cellist Inbal Segev, he also formed the Amerigo Trio in 2009.
As much as Dicterow cherishes his freedom to pursue all the other facets of his life in music, it is the Concertmaster position that, as he says, “rounds off my musical life.”
The responsibility that goes along with the job description of Concertmaster is immense and Dicterow sheds light on much of what it entails:
“As concertmaster, one is expected to perform all the violin solos of the symphonic literature. Besides that, one is the most essential conduit from the conductor, so to speak the first line of communication, to the entire orchestra, and responsible for all the strings’ bowings and musical phrasings. Usually I go over the score a few weeks before its performance, to check the bowings. The conductor, especially if he is the music director of the orchestra, usually entrusts the Concertmaster with the bowings that establish the string section’s articulation and phrasing. Changes are usually finalized in rehearsal…
“Sometimes—mostly with guest conductors—it happens that a conductor has a particular choice of bowings that may be regarded as unusual. That sometimes calls for drastic changes and has its challenges.”
Of course every conductor brings his own vision to the podium and Dicterow has some rare insights to share:
“Sometimes, establishing challenging bowings even becomes part of the particular signature of a conductor, as was the case with some of Lorin Maazel’s idiosyncratic bowing. A brilliant violinist himself, Maestro Maazel had a particular interest in achieving a certain pacing, through the physicality of using challenging bowing. It is thanks to challenges like these and the mastering of them, that the job never gets tiring,” says Dicterow reminiscently.
But just when one may think, why not let everyone work things out for themselves, free bowing for all, other problems are revealed:
“You work it out, and sometimes you change. Free bowing is not unproblematic either. Besides the fact that it does not look pretty if the string sections are not coordinated through simultaneous moves, bowing is essential—like breathing. The bow arm influences the color and it shapes the phrase. One of my colleagues, Joseph Silverstein, brought a rear mirror to rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in order to control the orchestra’s essential discipline of bowing.”
The legendary Stokowski insisted on a free bowing technique with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And so does present Music Director, Alan Gilbert, for particular sections.
Under Gilbert, the configuration of the string section’s seating was altered from its former arrangement. The wider spread between the first and second violin sections, originally located right next to each other and now facing each other on juxtaposing ends of the fanned out positions, with violas and cellos located in between them, was inspired by European orchestral traditions. Dicterow explains:
“We are always in the process of trying to achieve the best possible result and usually everything has certain advantages. For instance, in this case, the separation creates a more antiphonal effect. The negative aspects are that certain strategic problems arise when similar material has to be played by sections, separated by a larger distance. It becomes audibly harder to establish exact timing and the violinists have to rely rather on the visual input of their leaders, than on when they used to hear more clearly, in the closer arranged setting before.”
Indeed audiences seem to be pleased with the results of New York’s premier band led by Maestro Alan Gilbert who, hired for a five-year term as Music Director and well into his second season now, will soon engage in efforts to concretize plans to renovate its home, Avery Fisher Hall.
According to Dicterow, the acoustics of the large concert hall that has no reflective wall or ceiling for optimal resonance right now are most enjoyable from their performers’ location—on stage.
Dicterow grew up in a family deeply rooted in musical tradition. He remembers lying under his mother’s concert grand piano, listening to the sound of music created by both of his parents. His extraordinary talent was evident early on and he made his solo debut, aged 11, in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (where his father, Harold Dicterow, served as principal of the second violin section for 52 years). He fondly remembers charismatic Maestro Zubin Mehta as a familiar face, visiting his parents. Later, Dicterow followed his father’s destination and served as Concertmaster in Los Angeles, before following Mehta to the New York Philharmonic.
He describes the atmosphere within the orchestra as friendly and collegial, but during its local concert season, too hectic to socialize.
It is during the typical two-week concert tours that the orchestra experiences the social connection to the fullest. “On tour we are confined naturally to the same location and schedule, and even though it is usually a frenzied performance/travel schedule, there is time for mutual dinners and some fun. We do feel like a big family and we do get along. With the New York Philharmonic, everybody is allowed to be an Individual but you are also part of a whole entity. That makes the New York Philharmonic sound so charismatic. A lot of the younger generation’s new talented instrumentalists originate from China and Korea and out of the 97 musicians on the current roster of the Philharmonic, 48 are women, I believe.”
Dicterow went on to describe the mutual respect as well as the high artistic level and each instrumentalist’s competence and effort. Everyone “plays their hearts out” and guest conductors often remark on “how fast we get it.”
In his Biographic notes, published on the New York Philharmonic’s website, he acknowledges that he basically had no chance to escape the, for him, practically predestined world of music:
“When you grow up as a symphony brat as I did, you cannot help but feel attracted to that way of life. It surrounded me. There was no way I was going to be a lawyer.”
And New Yorkers, band and audiences alike, are thanking him for that after every performance. When he returns to his private chamber, his dressing room on Avery Fisher Hall’s fourth floor, a bottle of champagne awaits the seasoned Concertmaster, celebrating his so fully-engaged way of “playing the fiddle.”