Of course, all of the virtuoso orchestra players are critically important to a good symphony orchestra. Without them there would be no orchestra. But acknowledging that, I think it is recognized that the most important person needed for a good symphony orchestra is the conductor [director] of the orchestra. Also, known as the maestro, a great conductor can make for a great symphony orchestra.
So, if one agrees that the conductor is central to having a good orchestra, who is the second most important person?
In my humble opinion, that would be the”concertmaster“. The concertmaster may be recognized as the first violinist. I always used to think that the concertmaster was just chosen as the best violinist in the orchestra, but I have learned from one of the HSO’s pre-concert talks that the concertmaster is much more than that.
The concertmaster is chosen by the orchestra and director to be, like in the sports analogy, the captain of the team [orchestra]. The concertmaster is the liaison between the conductor and the orchestra members. For example, if there are any problems or questions the individual orchestra member may have for the conductor, he relays that to the concertmaster to help him/her.
Houston Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster, Yoonshin Song
You will see the concertmaster sit in the first row front seat of the violin section, which will be just to the left of the conductor [from the audience view]. So, the concertmaster will be the closest member of the orchestra both to the conductor and also the patrons attending the concert. There is a reason the concertmaster sits in that position in relation to the other violins, so they can view the concertmaster as he is like a secondary conductor for them.
The concertmaster has many other important and critical responsibilities. He/she is the first one the conductor contacts to inform him on how the conductor wants the phrasing of the piece to be played. The concertmaster then will create the bowing for the violins to meet the requirements of the phrasing. It is the concertmaster’s responsibility to make sure that all the violinists are on the same page. Whenever you watch a piece played by your symphony orchestra, watch how the bows of the violins will be played in perfect synchronization by every violinist. That is amazing to me. They all go up at the same time and go down at the same time. Synchronized swimming gold medalists have nothing on the violinists in a symphony orchestra.
If you ever go to a symphony concert in your home town, you will see, before the concert begins, the members of the symphony orchestra in their seats practicing various phrases of the different pieces they are about to play. They will all be there except for the concertmaster who is still backstage. Just before the concert is about to begin you will then see the concertmaster come out to applause from the patrons. He/she will stand by his seat in the front and when he does all members of the orchestra, except for the strings, will tune up their instruments. Then after they’ve started to tune up their instruments, the concertmaster will begin to tune up his violin and when he does it will be only then that the string players will tune up theirs.
Then the concertmaster will take his seat and when all the instruments have been tuned and are silent, the conductor will come out to the applause of the audience. After the conductor bows to the crowd he will shake the hand of the concertmaster. When the piece is finished the conductor will bow to the audience and shake the hand of the concertmaster again.
Also, when there is a concerto, you will see the soloist shake the hands of both the conductor and the concertmaster before and after the concerto.
Because the concertmaster is also the liaison between the members of the orchestra and the director, it is important that he gets along with and can communicate well with, the rest of the orchestra members. A symphony orchestra that has both a good conductor and a good concertmaster will be a unified team making for a great symphony orchestra.
I remember at one of the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s pre-concert lectures known as “prelude”, we were blessed to have concertmaster Frank Huang [this was in the year 2014] there to talk about and answer questions about his role as concertmaster. What a friendly, nice, outgoing gentleman. No wonder this man was chosen as the orchestra’s concertmaster. He displayed an expert knowledge and love of, not just the violin, but also the music he discussed with us.
I think I have heard, but can’t say with 100% accuracy, that the concertmaster is the highest paid member of the orchestra. With all of his responsibilities I can understand why.
Here are a few examples of the conductor and the soloist [in a concerto] shaking the hands of the concertmaster before a symphony/concerto and also at the completion of a symphony or concerto. In the first video the conductor also shakes hands with the second violinist.
Please turn up the volume, play in full screen and enjoy some beautiful music and the recognition of the concertmaster, the second most important person of symphony orchestra [IMHO]- [with the handshakes-and his closeness to the conductor and audience].
P.I. Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 in a minor:
L.V. Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major:
J.N. Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in Eb Major: