For the first time in 20 years, the Seattle Symphony is looking for a new concertmaster, the most important player in the orchestra. The change is likely to affect the orchestra's sound — and its future.

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The house lights go down, and the auditorium dims. Out of the stage wings walks a solitary figure in formal concert dress, bearing a violin. He — or, more rarely, she — points to the principal oboe, who sounds an A, and there is a robust cacophony as the orchestra tunes up.

This little-understood but vital figure is the concertmaster, someone who occupies a unique niche in the world of the symphony orchestra. The only player who can be appointed at the will of the conductor, the concertmaster also is traditionally the best-paid and highest-ranking of all the orchestra musicians.

And the Seattle Symphony is now searching for a new one, a move that may change the look, feel and sound of the string section and the orchestra as a whole. The new concertmaster’s reach will extend to Seattle Opera productions, recitals and chamber-music performances, as well as recordings of soundtracks for many of today’s feature films. The trickle-down effect of the Seattle Symphony concertmaster may continue in lessons to tomorrow’s young virtuosi, shaping the local music scene for years to come.

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When Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz decided not to renew the contract of previous concertmaster Ilkka Talvi last spring, Schwarz would have been within his rights to appoint a new concertmaster of his own choosing. Instead, he set in motion a complex and lengthy process to find a replacement, inviting 16 candidates to Seattle.

“It’s not just a matter of finding a brilliant violinist. There is much, much more to consider,” says Schwarz, now in his 20th year at the orchestra’s helm. “The real duties of the concertmaster are things the audience never sees.”

Meet the candidates

The concertmaster candidates heard thus far come from some of the country’s great orchestras. The list includes:

Michael Ludwig, associate concertmaster, Philadelphia Orchestra

David Taylor, associate concertmaster, Chicago Symphony

Lev Polyakin, assistant concertmaster, Cleveland Orchestra

Nathan Cole, section player, Chicago Symphony

Brian Reagin, concertmaster, North Carolina Symphony

Jeff Thayer, concertmaster, San Diego Symphony

Karen Johnson, concertmaster, Richmond (Va.) Symphony

Frank Almond, concertmaster, Milwaukee Symphony

Elisabeth Adkins, associate concertmaster, National Symphony

On the way are seven more players, five of them women, including:

Angela Fuller, section player, Minnesota Orchestra

(here for April 28 and 30 concerts)

Elisa Barston, associate concertmaster, St. Louis Symphony

(May 19 “Made in America” concert)

Robin Sharp, member, Ives String Quartet (June 23-26)

Others will be announced as they arrive.

The term “associate concertmaster” usually refers to the violinist who ranks just below the concertmaster; “assistant concertmaster” ranks just below the associate concertmaster.

— Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times music critic

A brilliant new concertmaster could help the orchestra rise in quality and in national profile, though it also will take big budgetary increases and other changes to lift the orchestra to the level of such big West Coast bands as the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. The current crop of concertmaster applicants includes musicians from some of America’s greatest orchestras.

“The concertmaster is really on the cutting edge of the creative process,” says David Taylor, associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony and one of the 16 candidates for the Seattle job.

Virtuoso with diplomat skills

The No. 1 violinist wears more hats than a GQ model. He or she is the maestro’s right arm, interpreting wishes to the rest of orchestra — especially the strings.

If the conductor wants the notes shorter and more sharply pointed, or a stress on a certain note in a complicated arpeggio, the concertmaster will demonstrate the techniques for getting the right sound. Watch an orchestra, and you’ll see those bows moving up and down in synchronization; this doesn’t happen by accident, but by marking the scores in concurrence with the conductor’s wishes and the concertmaster’s know-how.

The concertmaster also leads the players by being “more prepared and accurate than anyone else,” as Taylor puts it.

The conductor asks the concertmaster’s opinion, too, on both artistic and technical matters — even on issues such as whether it’s time for a break in the rehearsal or whether another symphonic movement should be rehearsed. Schwarz says he isn’t looking for a “yes man” — or woman — but someone who will “challenge me and us.”

“I’m not going to choose someone who makes a magnificent sound but can’t turn on a dime and be completely flexible,” Schwarz says. “We are looking not only for great bow control but also intelligence and diplomacy.”


Gerard Schwarz conducts the Seattle Symphony in a rehearsal last April for a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The concertmaster also represents the orchestra and communicates with visiting conductors and soloists, when the regular music director isn’t present. But the top violinist’s mark goes beyond all these elements to affect the actual sound of all the strings, “especially the first and second violins and the violas,” as Schwarz explains.

“I’m looking for a particular string sound. If you have a concertmaster whose sound is bright and wiry, the first violinists will follow suit. If the sound is dark and rich, the same thing happens. I’m looking for that dark, rich sound.”

Even as minor a matter as the violinist’s posture can make a big difference.

“The way they present themselves on the stage affects the whole orchestra,” Schwarz says. “If they move, the section moves, communicating a kind of kinetic energy on the stage where the whole orchestra seems more involved in the music. Of course, it’s possible to be too animated. You have to strike a balance.”

Court fight

The Finnish-born violinist Ilkka Talvi, 56, whom Schwarz chose 20 seasons ago as concertmaster, was not offered a contract for the 2004-05 season. Talvi and the Seattle Symphony Players’ Organization sued to force the matter into arbitration, and a U.S. District Court ruled in their favor. The orchestra has a month to decide whether to appeal.

Talvi’s contract reportedly guaranteed his position as long as Schwarz was music director. Talvi, however, did not sign a contract for the 2003-04 season, his last with the orchestra. In 2002-03, according to the Symphony’s most recent 990 tax form, he earned $157,631.

Schwarz and orchestra representatives will not discuss the reasons for the nonrenewal of Talvi’s contract, but it is generally known that there was some dissatisfaction with his playing — not only at home, but also on the orchestra’s East Coast tour last year.

Instead of appointing a new concertmaster, Schwarz devised a lengthy process of identifying and inviting potential candidates, because “I like to be inclusive,” says the conductor.

Together with the orchestra’s executive director, Paul Meecham, Schwarz called “most of the obvious candidates,” asking for CDs of their live performances and also for recommendations. Several musicians who heard of the opportunity also applied, and some of those were invited to participate.

The sweet 16

The 16 concertmaster candidates all come to Seattle for a week of rehearsals for concerts where Schwarz (rather than a guest maestro) is conducting. First, they meet with Schwarz privately to discuss the approach to the program they’ll play, and they have dinner at his home — an informal family affair with Schwarz’s wife, Jody, cooking, and usually a couple of board members present.

Then there’s a revealing formal audition, attended by certain of the orchestra’s string players, Schwarz, Meecham and a handful of others. Sometimes the player also will elect to give a recital.

Almost all the candidates attend an informal session at the Eastside home of David Fulton, dubbed “the world’s greatest violin collector” by Money magazine, where candidates try out his priceless Stradivarius and Guarneri violins. Fulton, a former orchestral violinist, and his wife, Amy, have a particular interest in the concertmaster selection process, since they endow the orchestra’s concertmaster chair.

“David has given me the opportunity to hear the players in more depth and detail, on his unbelievable instruments,” Schwarz says. “He gives me his opinion. He’s very knowledgeable, and he wants us to get a great violinist.”

Fulton, who has entertained many of the world’s greatest violinists in his home and heard them play his priceless fiddles, says he’s impressed with the quality of the concertmaster candidates.

“The level is very high,” he says, “and some are absolutely superb. … I’ve attended all but one or two of the auditions. I’m so encouraged by what I hear.”

Fulton says the chamber-music events at his home show things about players you might not see in orchestral rehearsals: how well they can sight-read, how well they can lead and communicate. He considers the concertmaster “not just a player, but also a moral and spiritual leader” of the strings.

Violinist Ilkka Talvi wasn’t offered a new contract.

After everyone has been heard, the final decision will lie with Schwarz. He may invite some candidates back for another look. He says he hopes to decide in June, though the chosen concertmaster may not be free to play the following season (the candidates probably will already have signed contracts with their current orchestras). In the interim, Seattle’s Maria Larionoff has stepped up from the associate concertmaster spot to be acting concertmaster.

The female factor

Although most concertmasters are men, better than one in three of the Seattle Symphony’s candidates are women. Schwarz thinks picking a woman might be an advantage, given the qualities of consensus-building many sociologists attribute to women.

One applicant, Richmond (Va.) Symphony concertmaster Karen Johnson, is in her early 20s with a 15-month-old daughter and a husband who plays in the U.S. Marine Band. She sees the role of the concertmaster as “unifying everybody in the circle [the orchestra’s string section] so that we feed off each other as if it were a big chamber-music concert.”

Later, in rehearsal, Johnson demonstrated a phrase in a Haydn symphony for the other violins, turning to them to describe how to get the ornament the way Schwarz wanted it. After the rehearsal, she played a formal audition for about two dozen orchestra members and administrators, including Schwarz and Meecham.

Usually orchestra auditions are closed to outsiders — this was the first time The Seattle Times has been present at an audition. Suffice it to say that the quality of Johnson’s audition underscored the satisfaction that many have expressed at the high quality of the concertmaster candidates.

“A great concertmaster has so much to offer an orchestra,” says executive director Meecham.

“Through their outstanding musicianship and their personal leadership, they can influence not only what happens artistically on stage, but be truly effective as a representative of the orchestra within the community.”

Melinda Bargreen:

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