"The Philharmonic violin section is like a Ferrari," says Sheryl Staples, Principal Associate Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic since 1998. "We are powerful and sensitive and virtuosic." They are also the most visible and numerous members of the Orchestra. For many concertgoers, the violin section, comprising 34 musicians in the case of the New York Philharmonic, defines the orchestra. Variously described as the workhorses or backbone of the modern symphony orchestra, the violins‹like the high-pitched sopranos in a chorus‹are the melodists, who play the tune you may find yourself humming as you leave the concert hall.
At one time‹before the advent of the modern symphony orchestra with its full complement of coloristic instruments in the wind, brass, and percussion sections‹orchestras consisted mostly of strings, and in fact, were often led not by a conductor but by the first violinist. That special historical role has come down to us today in the person of the concertmaster.
Regular concertgoers know that the New York Philharmonic's Concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, appointed in 1980, is usually sitting first row, first stand, outside seat, leading the section. "We shape the sound of the section with phrasing and bowings within a phrase," says Mr. Dicterow. "Some conductors insist on a particular type of bowing, but most will trust a concertmaster to work it out. I do this on my own, looking at parts about three weeks ahead of the concert so that everyone has a marked part when rehearsals begin."
However, the role of the concertmaster‹Mr. Dicterow rotates his responsibilities with Ms. Staples and Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim‹does not end when rehearsal begins. Musically and technically, he works as a liaison between the orchestra and the conductor: "You need antennae, to be aware of what's going on in the back of a section," explains Mr. Dicterow. And, of course, the concertmaster plays any violin solos called for in a score: think of the sinuous melodies in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
Marc Ginsberg, who has been Principal, Second Violin Group since 1972, reveals his own perspective: "I am fortunate to be in the center of the orchestra, in close contact with the conductor, at the core, at the center of the universe." Mr. Ginsberg particularly enjoys the "fitting-in process" of his section of violins, which often plays in harmony with the firsts.
The Philharmonic uses the revolving seating method with its string sections. This applies to all players listed alphabetically in the roster that is printed in the program, and means that everyone has a turn in the front, the back, inside, and outside. Carl R. Schiebler, the Philharmonic's Orchestra Personnel Manager, keeps track of the constantly shifting seat assignments. "It's a belt system," explains violinist Glenn Dicterow. "You move up on the outside and back on the inside, so you are changing stand partners about every two weeks. With a different person it's refreshing."
In recent years a host of younger players have joined the Orchestra. "All the strong young players we get bring lots of new energy," says Yoko Takebe, who has been in the Philharmonic for 27 years. "Technically we are more brilliant than we used to be‹having both 'chops' [the ability to play the hard notes]and the technique of being expressive, knowing the music so that listeners can feel what the composer wrote."
Mr. Dicterow, thinking about the musicians he leads, says, "We do have truly the top players, the cream of the crop in the world, attracted from the conservatories here. That gives us a personality that is well-rounded, heroic, virtuosic, and fearless in the ability to handle just about anything."
New York-based Margaret Shakespeare writes frequently about music.