A symphony orchestra is one of art's great paradoxes: many who perform, play, think as one. Robert Schumann, who knew a thing or two about music, once remarked, "If we were all determined to play the first violin, we should never have an ensemble." Still, now and then it's great for orchestral musicians to take center stage. The New York Philharmonic has long prided itself on being an orchestra of virtuosos, and this season a number of its musicians step into the spotlight as soloists and chamber artists. It's a chance for them to shine in unexpected light, tackle unusual repertoire, collaborate with orchestral colleagues, and let audiences get to know the men and women behind the instruments.
"I love it," Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps says of performing solo with the Philharmonic. "So often the viola is just part of the orchestral texture, and it's wonderful to stand in front of this Orchestra and have my own voice, particularly since the New York Philharmonic is such a great, great group." Ms. Phelps is featured in the Philharmonic's traversal of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos this season. "I'm particularly looking forward to doing the Brandenburg Six with Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young : she's one of my favorite colleagues, so it's great for us to perform this music together as a duo." Ms. Phelps finds that Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel is an equally amenable colleague. "When we work as soloists with Mr. Maazel," she observes, "he is very open to doing what the soloists want to do, which is wonderful. He wants us to be comfortable and follow our musical desires. It's nice to have a little more say in how you want to shape a piece, and it's good to be able to feel fluid in all the different hats that we need to wear."
In addition to her work at the Philharmonic, where she has made many featured appearances, Ms. Phelps has an active solo career. "I perform outside the Orchestra quite a bit, so I'm comfortable in solo roles : and in handing it over to the music director when appropriate. For me, having a musical life in addition to the Philharmonic is key to maintaining a healthy, engaged musical presence. You bring what you gain from your work with the Philharmonic to your work with chamber groups, and what you gain from your outside work informs your work at the Philharmonic. It makes for a great combination." In fact, Cynthia Phelps often plays with her colleagues from the Orchestra in chamber music as well, including upcoming appearances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (January 4) and the 92nd Street Y (March 22).
Since joining the Philharmonic in 1980 as Principal Horn, Philip Myers has made many solo appearances with the Orchestra, and this December performs Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2, a work he knows well. "When I started playing the French horn as a child, one of the first records I got was of the Mozart Second Horn Concerto," he recalls. "I played that record so much I think I wore it out. And it's one of the very first concertos you learn to play. Performing that piece today, I think back to how energized and excited I felt about it when I was a child : and I still get those same feelings."
This month Mr. Myers also gets to flex his chamber-music muscles, which he has done frequently in the intimate Philharmonic Ensembles chamber concerts at nearby Merkin Concert Hall, performances that he finds to be "very enjoyable" for musicians and audiences alike. He looks forward to the Holiday Brass concerts every December, at which he, as a member of the Philharmonic Principal Brass, collaborates with distinguished ensembles : such as the renowned Canadian Brass, this year's guest : on seasonal fare (this year's event takes place on December 14). "I've been doing the Holiday Brass concerts since the very beginning, decades ago," he says. "Little did we know that it would become a great, long-running thing. Playing different kinds of music makes for a lot of variety. Looking back over my time at the Philharmonic, I still enjoy the job. It's incredible how much variety there is on a daily basis."
Violist Judith Nelson is one of the Philharmonic's chamber-music advocates: she performs regularly in the Philharmonic Ensembles, and this January tackles Faur_'s Piano Quartet No. 1. "I've been playing at Philharmonic Ensembles concerts since I joined the Orchestra in 1983," she reflects. "I'm so happy that the Orchestra has that program: it makes for a very satisfying balance. When you're a string player in an orchestra, the goal is to blend in : to contribute to the group sound. Ideally, you contribute your ability to play, your natural instinct for phrasing, and your technical capacities, and the conductor supplies the overall vision to make a complete picture. It is amazing to be part of a big ensemble like the Philharmonic, but in chamber music, you have the chance to be heard as an individual, and can make artistic decisions : about sound, tempo, phrasing, atmosphere."
Ms. Nelson values the flexibility of moving between chamber and larger orchestral forces. "It's not as if you flip a switch between two kinds of playing," she observes. "Instead, we move along a huge continuum, from times when you absolutely want to blend, to very dramatic unaccompanied pieces where you express yourself as much as possible. Especially for a string player, it's important for your artistic health to get out there by yourself now and then. When you come back to orchestral music, you're fresh : you have more to contribute. I've always noticed that when people come back from performing chamber music, they sit up a little straighter and dig in a little harder. Of course, some people who play only in orchestras are perfectly happy that way. And that's great. Personally, I like the mix. It's healthy."
Earlier this season, Principal Flute Robert Langevin performed the solo in Lorin Maazel's Music for Flute. In addition to his many solo roles with the Orchestra, he has also appeared as a chamber musician, both in the Philharmonic Ensembles and on Philharmonic tours, when he and other Philharmonic players appear at foreign embassies and ambassadorial events. "I think audiences like chamber music because they feel closer to the musicians : there's more contact in smaller venues, whereas when we perform onstage, it's a different rapport," Mr. Langevin says. "I think audiences also enjoy hearing the musicians individually, and getting to know us a little. During the last Philharmonic tour, we played in small groups at the American embassies in London and Paris. We usually get to meet the people who live in those countries or the people who work at the embassies and their guests. You feel a little like a cultural ambassador."
To Mr. Langevin, performing solo, chamber, and full-orchestra works makes for a well-rounded artist: "For me the best approach is a mixture of the different literatures. Having that variety makes it all much more complete."
For further information, schedules and tickets, visit the New York Philharmonic.
Robert Sandla is Editor in Chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.