“The concertmaster (from the German Konzertmeister) is the second-most significant person in an orchestra. The concertmaster becomes a spokesman, explaining the new conductor’s instructions to the rest of the players.”
~New York Times
I have been playing in the Bangkok Charity Orchestra (BCO) for a few years now. BCO is the first orchestra to be committed to raising funds for charities in Thailand. It is established with the aims to support well respected charities as well as to promote classical music while being a platform for aspiring musicians to perform to a high standard.
I started with this orchestra when I still had no concept of an orchestra worked. I would sit right at the back of the second violins, hiding as far from the crowd’s eye as possible, playing as soft as a humming bird flaps its wings. I didn’t want anyone to hear me because I was scared I was going to play a wrong note. I would try to keep an eye on my conductor, Maestro Chulayuth Lochotinan, but that was just a bit too much to ask for as I could barely keep up with the music itself.
But that was back in 2010.
In October 2013, I got a call from the conductor of the orchestra. He had a strange request for me. He wanted me to be the concertmaster for the upcoming concert. I was shocked and confused. He told me the resident concertmaster cannot make the show this time so he asked me to fill in this position. I was very scared at first but it had always been my dream to lead an orchestra. So I took the challenge.
Being a concertmaster comes with a lot of responsibility. A concertmaster is like the leader of the musicians in the orchestra. As quoted before, the concertmaster is the second most powerful person. Not only is the concertmaster the leader of the orchestra, s/he is also the leader of the strings section and the 1st violins. That is a great amount of tasks for a single person to do and I was going to step up and fill this spot.
I told my violin teacher about being the concertmaster and she was very excited for me. As the concertmaster of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, she gave me some good advice on how to be a good concertmaster. She said that first of all, I needed to be confident, both inside and outside. At rehearsals I must sit in the hot seat and make my presence known to everyone. This way, people would know that I am a confident person and that would make them less nervous. She also said that I must help decide the bowing of the string section. Even though there are just two types of bowing, up bow pr down bow, and two ways of connecting it, having the right bowing can make a big difference during the concert. Changing the bowing direction means changing the articulation of the music. Changing the articulation can cause a change in mood. The bowings must be discussed with the conductor to see if he actually agrees with the feeling he is trying to express through the music. The last piece of advice, which happened to be the most important one, was to learn my part well. I had to be the lead of my group, so if everyone else failed, I had to continue to play no matter what happened.
Armed with these tips I conquered this tough position. Being the concertmaster was actually one of the hardest challenges I had ever mastered. To prepare and become a good concertmaster, I spent a lot of time practicing the pieces that we were going to play. Our repertoire was quite long totaling to an hour and a half of music. It included a range of different styles and show cases the evolution of dance music. This was the first thing I needed to prepare. Starting with Mozart and ending with Shostakovich, each piece that I was playing has its own style. Although the conductor decides on the overall piece and feeling of the piece, the orchestra still needs to play it in that style. For example, when playing “Emperor Waltz” by Strauss, it must be played as a classic Vienna Waltz. The second violins must come in a quarter of a beat earlier than it supposed to. This creates the Viennese waltz feel. It sounds easy but when put to action it gets hard because it is an offbeat beat. I also had to prepare the bowing. The bowing had to fit the articulation that the conductor wants and not be awkward at the similar time. It was a very hard job and required a lot of thinking. When everyone had the same bowing, this made our orchestra look much more organized which enabled us to look much more professional. Finally, I had to attend every rehearsal. It is very important that the concertmaster be there at ever rehearsal as sometimes the conductor make important notes that must be processed into music by the concert master. This was a very time consuming thing as rehearsals were on every Saturday and Sunday from 2 till 5pm. They occured for a month so there was a total of 32 hours of rehearsals.
On the day of the concert, I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. The concert was called “An Invitation to Dance” which features dance music from different musical periods of Western Art Music. I sat closest to the conductor and also closest to the microphone. Oh the microphone, how afraid I was. I was afraid of making a mistake. The pressure was very high.
After the 1.5 hour concert, I felt accomplished and successful. The orchestra kept together and I thought I did quite a good job for a first time as concertmaster, which was confirmed by my conductor. I felt like I would never be a good concertmaster if I didn’t conquer my fear of performing badly in front of others. This experience would be something that I would treasure for a long time. In the future, when I sit in that hot seat again, I will think back to my amateur days. I now have extra respect for concertmasters of any orchestra. Their job should not be under looked but instead praised as much as a conductor should.
As a charity orchestra, the benefactor of this concert was a children’s foundation called The Childline Thailand Foundation. It is an organization which provides a nationwide telephone service for homeless or street children and also run a children center where these children can learn some basic life skills. In total 200,000 baht was raised for this foundation. This is a great experience for me as it combines two things that I like into one: service and music.
Here is a video of me sitting in the hot seat.
Here are some pictures from the concert: