This month Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and Principal Cello Carter Brey will step out of their respective sections to perform the solo parts in Brahms's Concerto for Violin and Cello (April 20-21), led by Music Director Lorin Maazel. The work, which the two have played together with the Philharmonic on six previous occasions, first in 1998, will also be on the program that the Orchestra will give in Budapest, Vienna, and Luxembourg in May. In this conversation, two of the Philharmonic's preeminent string players talk about their collaboration.
How do you view this work?
Glenn Dicterow: I think it's one of the greatest concertos ever written. It is the second of only two string concertos by Brahms.
Carter Brey: I grew up listening to recordings of both of Brahms's piano concertos and the violin concerto. For cellists this is the closest we can get; this is the Brahms concerto.
GD: Yes, Brahms did give the lion's share of notes to the cello; Carter gets to start with his cadenza and I get to mentally prepare for my entrance when I join him several measures later ... which can feel like an eternity!
CB: I suspect that Brahms gave the solo cello the role of introducing a lot of the thematic material for the same reason that Beethoven did in his Triple Concerto: spotlighting an instrument by having it play new material first is a way of overcoming a darker register. The violin can soar so effortlessly over the orchestra; it's a little harder to get the cello out over the footlights against the sound of an orchestra.
I like the fact that a lot of the writing is in the middle range. Many composers think that they have to put melodic cello writing up in the stratosphere, but that sort of negates the range of the instrument. Brahms uses the whole range, which is nice.
Who dictates the flow of the concerto — the soloists or the conductor?
CB: Part of the process of mastering a piece is to know who's in the driver's seat. As a soloist you have to learn when the conductor is going to be taking every cue from you, when you have to be taking every cue from the conductor, and when there is a more subtle interplay. People often ask me about the difference between playing chamber music as a soloist and playing in an orchestra. I say there is no difference; it's all the same basic musicianship: listen, listen, listen, and respond. You're always in a time stream, and you have to listen and respond to what's going on.
GD: In this three-part dialogue the themes are passed back and forth among the cello, violin, and orchestra at various times. All of us must be sensitive to who is most important at that moment. We must always be flexible.
Do you mean spontaneous?
CB: We're so used to playing off each other, I almost don't think about it. It's a combination of support and spontaneity ...
GD: Absolutely. That's something we have in common. We don't like playing performances the same way twice; we like to improvise a bit. If you have a conductor who will follow that, it's extra special.
How does Lorin Maazel respond to a fluid approach like that?
CB: He'll be very spontaneous. Maazel can do that.
GD: Oh, he can! He's very intuitive and sensitive. That's the way he operates, more so than some other conductors. A good example is the spot in the last movement that starts right off the bat with the cello ...
CB: Yes! I have to be careful that the conductor is ready in the last movement — I could ruin his day! [laughter]
Is it easier because you have played this work together before?
GD: We do have similar feelings about this work, it's very organic. That's the joy of it. We agree on a lot of the musical ideas.
What is it like performing a concerto with your own orchestra?
CB: You get spoiled here; it's such a talented group. And you get used to certain phrasing and ways of approaching rhythm and sound with your own orchestra. It makes it so much easier. I definitely have a very high comfort level here.
GD: I do, too. On the other hand, one shouldn't get too comfortable. Here in New York, in front of your colleagues, you always want to be better: to play at a higher level than your last performance. There is no slacking off. In a way, nerves can be more on edge when you're working with your own orchestra.
CB: I like to set a good standard — I don't mean for them to follow, but I like to be a good representative of my section and my orchestra.
GD: I feel the same way — you don't want to be the weakest link! [laughter]
What are you most looking forward to about your performances of this piece?
GD: Playing it for the first time with Lorin Maazel. I don't believe he's heard us do it before. It will be very exciting performing it here in New York and on our upcoming European tour. I know it will be a wonderful collaboration.
Lucy Kraus is a Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.