The New York Philharmonic is an orchestra of virtuosos: pluck an individual from the ensemble, place her center stage, and you'll reveal a world-class solo performer. So it's no surprise that key players from the various instrumental sections are highlighted on the Orchestra's programs from time to time. This month audiences will be treated to the spectacular artistry of four of them.
Over the course of five concerts, from November 22 through 29, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples and Principal Oboe Liang Wang will be the soloists in J.S. Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe; on the November 26 Saturday Matinee concert, their solo turn will be preceded by Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and Principal Cello Carter Brey joining the week's conductor and keyboardist Jeffrey Kahane for Schubert's Piano Trio in B-flat major. (Earlier in the month, November 10 through 15, Mr. Brey will be joined by Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps as the soloists in Richard Strauss's Don Quixote.) In spite of the musicians' professionalism, changing roles from that of an orchestral player : one voice in a very large ensemble : to that of a featured soloist or chamber musician can still present formidable challenges. How do these veterans of the concert stage handle the juggling act? Some of their answers are surprising.
In some ways being a soloist is actually less diffi cult than playing principal chair in the orchestra, Glenn Dicterow explains. "When you are the soloist it's your evening. You are there to play a concerto, and your mind-set is geared exactly to that. On the other hand, as Concertmaster of the Orchestra I have to be prepared to play the big violin solos included in pieces such as Scheherazade, Ein Heldenleben, and the St. Matthew Passion. Solos like these must emerge out of a group sound and I instantly must 'switch on the juice' to become a soloist, before rejoining the ranks again. It can be a little daunting." There are also practical concerns: "When you are a soloist, you can practice in your room even minutes before walking on stage. It's less stressful than switching gears somewhere in the middle of a work."
Mr. Dicterow, who will be the soloist for Bart‹k's First Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic in May, has additional responsibilities as Concertmaster: setting the tone, unifying the style and bowing of the string section, getting the conductor's ideas across quickly and effectively; he also serves on important committees. It all seems job enough for anyone. But he believes that placing the Philharmonic musicians in special settings, such as the chamber ensemble he is joining for the Schubert Trio, adds an invaluable dimension. "When playing chamber music, you and your colleagues set the interpretation without a conductor," he explains. "It's like a musical cleansing of the soul. Everyone has the chance to express his or her musical individuality, yet the result has to jell as a group. Of course," he adds, "the group standard at the New York Philharmonic is extremely high."
Carter Brey agrees that there are differences in orchestral, solo, and chamber roles, but "it's the same skill set," he explains. "In each case you have to be impeccably prepared, listen to the music in real time, respond to what you hear, and communicate. You have to be sensitive to balance, to what your colleagues are doing around you. Even if you are a soloist, it's important to use the collaborative techniques required of orchestral players."
And, he notes, even in an orchestral context, sometimes players have to assume the role of leader. "If a conductor shows us a wrong meter or cue, we don't have a chance to canvass 100 people on stage about how to fix it. So a section principal can be like a 747 pilot: it's important to remain calm and focused, to find the impulse that will get the train back on the track : you have to be aware that the catalyst might be you, or the trombones, or the timpani."
The continuity between roles is also a theme raised by Liang Wang, who says he is "a chamber musician at heart. I've always approached everything in a similar way. The most important thing is to fit in with what surrounds you. It may be different for me, because as an oboe player you are often a soloist, just because of the nature of the instrument: composers tend to write solos for the oboe in their big works.
"But say you are playing a 16th-note accompaniment and someone wants to take time at the height of a phrase, for emotional expression : there has to be that interplay. It can be very intimate. That's why, for me, the orchestra is just a bigger version of a chamber group. Over time, you get to know everyone's tendencies. In the Philharmonic, each person has his or her own concrete idea, but after years of playing together we have developed a group identity."
Like Liang Wang, Sheryl Staples contends that the musicians of the Philharmonic are "always playing chamber music in a sense." But changing hats does bring out differences. "The Bach [Concerto for Violin and Oboe] will generate a greater focus on us than chamber music would," she anticipates. "The music features two soloists, and the violin has a prolific part. Of course, we all had to go through an audition process as soloists to get here, but stepping in front of our colleagues is another musical muscle to exercise, and a great privilege.
"This Bach piece is one of the most beautiful works I've ever played," she says. "I especially cherish the slow movement : the opportunity to pass melodies back and forth between the violin and the oboe. It's very conversational and lots of fun. And Jeffrey Kahane is a musician who brings a glow of positive energy to the stage. With him, it's all about the music, and he has a wonderful, personable way of leading."
It's sure to be a remarkable experience for the musicians and the audiences alike.
Stuart Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College conservatories of music and dance (SUNY), and the author of A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians : from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between.