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The Concertmaster Conundrum

June 12, 2007

The New Century Chamber Orchestra’s concertmaster-conductor search has brought forward some of the classical music world’s top violinists as candidates to lead the ensemble. The search has also highlighted the concertmaster’s role. Is he/she a conductor? A soloist? A member of the first violin section? A chamber musician? These are the questions the organization will have to weigh as it chooses its next leader. Meanwhile, the 2007-2008 lineup of guest conductors includes more great names, such as Nadja Salerno-Sonenberg and Margaret Batjer.
The fourth and final guest concertmaster for 2006-2007 was Cho-Liang Lin, in a program of two serenades, a contemporary concerto, and a Mozart symphony. Throughout the Sunday afternoon concert in Marin, Lin’s violin could be heard distinctly, his playing full of crisp and resolute articulation. His sound could always be distinguished from the other players based on his attack and personality. In the concerto, this proved ideal. But in the symphony, for example, Lin’s violin could still be heard apart from his section. He did not make the transition from soloist to orchestra member. Aside from that, the concert went well.

Mozart’s Serenata Notturna was played with great contrasts between the march and the playful sections. The timpani didn’t outbalance the strings, as is often the case with this piece. For Mozart, the playing was rather rough and heavy, laden with open strings and accented phrase endings. But given the work’s name, it was appropriate — as if a band of musicians had left the bar on a summer evening to serenade a lucky girl’s window. The quartet of soloists played with great energy, but again Cho-Liang Lin tended to overpower the rest.

Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was paired with Mozart’s serenade. The Elgar serenade rarely fails to please, with its gorgeous melodies and fleeting charm, and this performance was no exception. The same goes for Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. In these two orchestral pieces, the absence of the usual baton-wielding conductor was not felt. The orchestra performed on their feet (with the cellos mounted on pedestals), and phrased with near flawless ensemble.
Infectious Spirit of the Seasons
The concert’s highlight came in Gordon Shi-Wen Chin’s “modern sequel to Vivaldi’s Seasons,” the Formosa Seasons. Like Vivaldi, Chin based the concerto for violin and strings on a set of poems about the four seasons. Lin has championed this piece in his concerts, and is obviously an earnest believer in the music. Passion and conviction, in addition to technical skill and high-quality material, always make for a great performance, no matter what the genre. With Lin’s belief in Chin’s composition, this contemporary “atonal” piece was played with as much romance as an Elgar serenade.

The spirit rubbed off on the orchestra, who put heart and effort into the difficult rhythms and extended technique sections. The players’ efforts in turn rubbed off on the audience, which received the piece with enthusiasm. Everything from the summer “cricket chirps” to the “song collected in child” was meaningful and poignant. The difficult rhythms and textures were well-executed, sometimes countering with antagonistic subjects and at other times supporting Lin’s soaring windward phrases.

It was great to see the orchestra’s ladies dressed in a variety of colorful tops, but the men still had to wear tuxedos. The concert was held in the Hoytt Theater at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. Audience members were seated around candlelit tables, and were allowed to bring drinks and food inside the hall (this didn’t seem to create any annoying noises or distractions). The setup worked well and should be used elsewhere, as it helps to diffuse the tense and often off-putting atmosphere at some classical concerts. The acoustics, however, were not ideal. Much of the sound seemed to escape into a vacuous backstage area; a sound-reflecting shell might have helped.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.