Alexander Velinzon, formerly of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is Seattle Symphony's new concertmaster. His first concert with SSO is June 21, 2012, in "The Damnation of Faust."

Share story

Russian-American violinist Alexander Velinzon, the Seattle Symphony’s new concertmaster, didn’t start his orchestral career by wanting to be a concertmaster — the leader of an orchestra’s first violin section, and who leads the orchestra’s tuning process before the conductor walks on, among other duties.

But after serving in the role with freelance orchestras in New York and as a guest with orchestras around the world, he found he really loved it.

“It takes a certain personality and skills,” he said in a phone interview earlier this month, speaking from Boston, where he’s wrapping up as assistant concertmaster with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Once he realized how much he liked the job, he began pursuing concertmaster opportunities. He couldn’t be happier to land the position in Seattle.

“It’s a great city,” he says in lightly accented English. “It’s a great orchestra.”

Last fall, as a guest concertmaster with the Seattle Symphony for a program that included Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances,” he was especially taken with the playing of the string section.

“I found it so warm … a sound that really spoke to me,” he says. He also played a children’s concert that week and was impressed with music director Ludovic Morlot’s presentation, choice of repertoire and the way he related to the kids: “My daughter was in the audience that day, and she kept singing the theme song from that children’s concert for months afterwards!”

Velinzon just rented a house on North Capitol Hill where he’ll live with his family, and he will make his Seattle debut as concertmaster this week when Morlot conducts Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” Berlioz, Velinzon says, is one of his favorite composers. Four or five years ago, he made a pilgrimage to the composer’s birthplace, La Côte-Saint-André in southeastern France. It changed the way he plays Berlioz’s music, he says.

“Anytime when you get to know where someone is coming from, you have a better chance of understanding what they are trying to say in their art. Playing Berlioz’s music became more personal to me after seeing his house, the view from his room, the fields next to the town where he grew up.”

Velinzon was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and began his violin studies at age 6. He moved with his family to Massachusetts in 1990, when he was 16, because his parents worried that he wouldn’t have the career opportunities in Russia that he needed.

When he was 17, Velinzon moved on his own to New York, where he attended the Juilliard School, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. He wound up spending nine years in the city (“For a long time I felt like a New Yorker”) before becoming assistant concertmaster with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s not a way to become a conductor,” he says, when asked. “It’s a vocation unto itself.”

The concertmaster, he explains, serves as a liaison between the conductor and the musicians. “Mostly for the strings, of course,” he acknowledges, “but for the whole orchestra as well.”

That means translating the conductor’s wishes regarding phrasings, tempos and other musical concerns.

“The concertmaster has to lead by example,” he adds. “Since the violin section is a large group, the concertmaster’s playing needs to be communicated all the way to the back. His gestures, body language and music phrasing should be slightly exaggerated.”

While the music director plays the biggest role in shaping a vision for the orchestra, it’s the concertmaster’s duty to help keep that vision on track.

Velinzon also sees his role as a musical emissary to the general public.

“People do actually want to meet the musicians,” he says, “not just see them onstage.” He’s eager to introduce music lovers to symphony players in an informal manner: “We don’t always wear our dress coats and tails.”

Velinzon’s first encounter with Morlot came five or six years ago, when Morlot arrived at the BSO to serve as assistant conductor to James Levine.

“He immediately struck the whole orchestra as something very special,” Velinzon recalls. “So thoughtful, so musical.”

The most impressive quality about Morlot, Velinzon feels, is his clear vision of how he wants the Seattle Symphony to be one year, two years, even three years from now.

“He has programs in mind way in advance,” Velinzon says — programs that aren’t just a random mix of baroque, romantic and modern pieces, but have specific musical or historical connections from work to work on the program.

Several concerts coming up in 2012-13, when Velinzon takes up his concertmaster’s role full-time, have him especially excited.

“From a selfish perspective,” he says with a laugh, “I’m really looking forward to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade,’ which has a big and famous violin solo in it.” (The concertmaster always plays the violin solos in non-concerto orchestral pieces.)

Messiaen’s massive “Turangalîla Symphony,” which the BSO performed 12 years ago, has him enthused too. “It was one of the most impressive and greatest experiences in music for me,” he says. “It’s not a piece that’s done often, so it’s going to be a very special occasion.”

On rare occasions, a concertmaster’s responsibilities aren’t strictly musical. William Preucil, concertmaster for the Cleveland Orchestra, has recounted an awkward instance when a hornet was threatening to sting conductor Christoph von Dohnányi midperformance.

“I gave him a good whack,” Preucil said. “He turned around and looked at me like I had just shot him. Then he saw the thing buzzing around and he understood.”

Velinzon has his own conductors-in-jeopardy anecdotes, notably from the BSO’s sweltering midsummer concerts at Tanglewood (BSO’s seasonal home in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts).

“We’ve had conductors who’ve had steam coming off their heads. So you have a conductor who’s literally smoking. That was quite memorable, and it happened several times, in fact.”

He adds: “We also had a case of failed suspenders — and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Michael Upchurch: