What's the difference between a soloist and an orchestra violinist?

February 14, 2018, 6:40 PM · The title says it all. What are the core differences between a typical orchestra violinist (or a musician as well I guess) and a soloist?

Do soloists normally play way better than orchestra musicians?

Do they practice a lot more?

Are they worse at some things?

What are the main skills that make you be a soloist?

Replies (20)

Edited: February 14, 2018, 7:33 PM · The soloist plays the solo part; the orchestra violinist play first and second violinist parts!

Kind of stating the obvious here, intentionally. Arguably the soloist part is more difficult and the center of attention. The entire orchestra play second role. Also, typically, the soloist memorized his/her part, and is the only one playing it, whereas orchestral players play the first and second parts from sight reading.

Are the orchestral players not as good as the soloist? Not necessarily so. It's just a different job IMO. Obviously there is a lot more pressure on the soloist, with little or no room for error, so they have to be a lot more prepared. On the other hand, I don't think the soloist (I assume) has to deal with nearly the same variety of repertoire as the orchestra players do. Where the soloist has weeks if not months to prepare (in theory) the orchestra players often has a few hours if any time at all (e.g. movie music production).

That said, there are situations where for e.g. Heifetz got together with an orchestra for the first time and produced a recording in less than 4hr without having seen the music ever before!

Edited: February 14, 2018, 7:58 PM · In a world of hyper-precision virtuosity expected from anyone in the upper echelon of playing, I suspect being 'a soloist' as a career is more a result of:

1. Good publicity skills
2. Good people skills
3. Right time, right place
4. Extroverted personality with assertive features.
5. Attractiveness

With skills being so highly honed in the classical music world these days the difference between a soloist and a concertmaster at the point where the careers diverge is likely extremely small, and the difference being more desire and personality than technical achievement.

February 14, 2018, 9:03 PM · If all the orchestra players played like the soloist it would sound very messy!
February 15, 2018, 12:41 AM · Many virtuosic violinists have been or still been playing in orchestra for several years, for it is not easy to become a soloist within a short period of time, for example, Svetlin Roussev is concertmaster of Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, Rudolf Koelman is former concertmaster of Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Ilya Kaler is former concertmaster of Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Massimo Quarta is former concertmaster of Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, and Vincenzo Bolognese been Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Those whose career lead to virtuosic soloist directly could be considered to be a fortune. I think many orchestral violinists can be compared with some virtuosic violinists who signed by recording companies, merely in terms of techniques and agilities.
February 15, 2018, 3:47 AM · As a soloist you have to be able to perform flawlessly under terrifying scrutiny and pressure.
February 15, 2018, 3:53 AM · Here's Hillary Hahn interviewing Alex Kerr touching upon some of your questions.
February 15, 2018, 4:44 AM · this past entry on v.com is interesting, the two-volume book mentioned there is also very interesting, I have it.


Edited: February 15, 2018, 6:10 AM · And then there is that rare breed - CM + soloist + conductor + quartet founder/leader + teacher, all under one hat. I have in mind Dennis Simons, the current conductor of Bristol Chamber Orchestra.

See this interview,

February 15, 2018, 7:59 AM · Orchestra violinists usually sleep at home*, successful soloists - not so much!

*except maybe on "Mozart in the Jungle."

Edited: February 15, 2018, 8:26 AM · I've thought about this in that past, and in other threads I've tried to inject the question as follows:

Supposed you're a first-stander in your orchestra, maybe even CM. The soloist is standing a few feet away from you, blazing away at the cadenza of their concerto. What thoughts do you have:
(a) The soloist is way better than me -- I could not do what (s)he is doing.
(b) I've got the skill and artistry to do that, but I lack the "other qualities" that would make me a good/willing soloist.
(c) I'm just as good as the soloist in every respect. But I chose the orchestral life for my own individual reasons.

I don't think it's all that obvious. Now, if you put Josh Bell in front of an average fee-for-service orchestra, I think we know what the answer would be. But someone like David Kim or Martin Chalifour? I doubt they're intimidated, but I'd be curious to learn how they'd answer that question.

Edited: February 15, 2018, 9:21 AM · Once upon a time In America/NYC, it helped if the head of the violin cartel liked you ( if you aspire to a solo career and have the digital skills); or at least wouldn’t do anything to actively sabotage your career.
Edited: February 15, 2018, 9:39 AM · Mischa Mischakoff*, long-time concertmaster (CM) of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini kind of set the standard for CM-level talent - at least among the great orchestras of the Western Hemisphere. Even after he retired he was in demand as a soloist, playing concertos with other orchestras even into his 80s. I think that level of ability is still being hired to CM our great orchestras.

* The book "Mischa Mischakoff, Journeys of a Concertmaster" by his daughter, Anne Mischakoff Heiles is a really good read with wonderful history that I never knew - especially about Mischakoff's escape from Russia with cellist Piatigorsky. The trade-paperback version of the book comes with a CD featuring his playing in his divergent roles as soloist, recitalist, chamber musician and concertmaster.

My father, a research MD whose Columbia University lab was on Welfare/Roosevelt Island in New York's East River (under the 59th Street Bridge) in the late 1930s to mid-1940s. One day while walking through the chronic disease wing of the hospital on the island Dad happened upon a recovering TB patient who had been the concertmaster of the WOR (radio station) symphony orchestra before he got sick. That CM was about to be released and his physician allowed him to resume playing violin a small amount - and he did it by joining my father's amateur weekly string quartet. It was not long before they stopped playing quartet music and the CM would play violin concertos with them while the regular quartet members played the accompaniments from piano scores. My father said it was like playing with Heifetz. I was told that once his doctor released him to go back to work he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra* that would pay him several times more than his CM job had - he needed to pay for his medical care. *( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Whiteman )

Edited: February 15, 2018, 10:07 AM · Joshua Roman was principal cellist with the Seattle Symphony for two years before his rockstar solo career began. I'm sure I've seen every one of the CMs perform as a soloist with the orchestra. Many of our symphony musicians play in chamber ensembles as well. They are all excellent musicians.
February 15, 2018, 10:16 AM · Violin soloists have several characteristics that make them successful:
1.necessary, but not sufficient - technique that is above and beyond most concertmasters
2.the ability to thrive under intense pressure - critics will comment on 1 wrong note in a 20 minute concerto
3. amazing memory for music - Izhak Perlman knows over 300 songs for concertos and encores. He tells his accompanist the encore selections the night before.
4. endurance - travel is frequent
5. expressive - last, but not least - within the framework of the written work, they find ways to create more audience emotion than most violinists. They have analyzed specific notes and rhythms versus the orchestra and in the context of creating emotion.
February 15, 2018, 12:00 PM · There are many strata of soloists.

I've read some nontrivial number of biographies of violinists who call themselves "soloists" when what they mostly do is play a free recital or two a year, and teach privately. This is probably not what most people mean when they think of "soloists".

Then there are the folks who derive some of their income from recitals and concerto performances -- call it a dozen such engagements a year -- but mostly teach as their primary source of income. (This seems to be reasonably common for university professors.)

There are the folks who have a few dozen engagements a year. You might or might not recognize their names.

And then there are the ones that have upwards of a hundred, perhaps even several hundred, engagements a year. They're tiered into people who primarily play in first-class venues with internationally reknowned orchestras, and everyone else.

Most people think of the top-tier soloists who travel constantly to concertize with big-name orchestras, when they think "soloist". But they're only a tiny percentage of the overall number of violinists who label themselves "soloists".

February 15, 2018, 3:02 PM · OK, by soloist I mean the violinist who plays the Bruch concerto and then the rest of violinists that play in the orchestra.

Could any (or most) of the violinists in the orchestra replace the soloist?

Edited: February 15, 2018, 3:27 PM · "What are the main skills that make you be a soloist?" Determination, skill, time management, personal discipline, and the willingness to be an independent contractor. Many professional musicians can play as well as the professional soloist but they don't want the life of a totally independent contractor.

As one who had a high-travel job I learned that living out of hotels and airports is a life with few perks regardless of the adulation of the crowd at a performance. In my professional field I had the skills and talent that made me an in-demand speaker/consultant. After a bit over a decade I bailed out and got a regular job.

My sense of the soloist is that their life is very similar to what I experienced - periods of elation amidst a world of hotels, airports, delays, frustrations, et cetera. There are more than a few top-soloists who abandoned the road for a steady gig and a better life.

Edited: February 15, 2018, 5:42 PM · Tim, I think
Community orchestra: no!
Regional (at lest semi-pro): probably yes for some of the pros, but they might not do it from memory
Top tier orchestras:Yes - probably an audition requirement.

BUT --- Let me add this:
A couple of years ago I attended a concerto concert by a local amateur symphony orchestra. All are amateur players although certainly some of the players have violin performance degrees - especially the concertmaster and the principal second violinist - who that afternoon performed the Sibelius and Barber concertos. I can't remember which young woman played which, but the solo performances were flawless and most expressive and the orchestra wss not distracting. I cannot remember if they played from memory or not, but if they did not it was not distracting.

Edited: February 15, 2018, 8:15 PM · Andrew, my childhood violin teacher knew Mischakoff. They played together (I believe they may have shared a stand!) in the Scandinavian Symphony of Detroit, a pick-up group that Mischakoff led in his "retirement." The Scandinavian Symphony is not mentioned in Mischakoff's Wikipedia page, but you can find a recording of the group on YouTube.

And yes, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra would have been a very top-level and well-paid gig at the time.

February 15, 2018, 4:37 PM · A few points:

A soloist has to stand out; a rank-and-file player has to blend; a concert master has to lead the troops.

An orchestral player spends most of his time not quuite hearing what he is doing. Their solos can be competent but disappointing.

Orchestral parts can be as difficult as solos, but there is safety in numbers!

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