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Samuel Thompson

Crass Ambition?

May 15, 2010 at 5:31 AM

My thanks to Laurie Niles for suggesting that I post this entry.   I must preface with the fact that I was, despite Laurie's encouragement, somewhat wary of posting what could be taken as either incendiary or angry:   my intention in writing - and posting - this entry, is simply to ask the question.   Nevertheless, I am humbled and honored to have received the request and can only hope that the question posed here is one that has been asked and contemplated by all of us who have taken the task of playing this great instrument called the violin. -   Sam

Hello, all - it's been a little while, yes, but it's also been quite the busy month, with many concerts and other things. As it is May and I'm currently living in a college town, I'm feeling both the energies of slowing down as well as that that says keep moving forward. Of course, that can be confusing in itself...
...but today I write because I have, in recent months, found myself deeply disturbed by the reports of some behavior being exhibited toward two of my dear friends who happen to be colleagues.  Needless to say, the names of my friends and the offending parties as well as the orchestras in which these acts are taking place will not be used here; however, what has been happening now for two years can only and sadly be classified as good old-fashioned backstabbing - of the worst kind.

Of course, I understand the need to be the best that one can be - but I also understand and am truly grateful to have had teachers that frowned - at best - at the callousness and destructive behavior that we as violinists sometimes inflict upon each other, behavior that is totally rooted in deep but denied insecurity.

In her book Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy, author Amy Biancolli chronicles the deep friendship that existed between Eugène Ysäye and Fritz Kreisler. The great Belgian - along with other "luminaries" including none other than Carl Flesch - sensed the significance of Kreisler's debut, later dubbing the young Kreisler the Weiniawski of the time and stating with great assurance that the young Austrian had a brilliant future before him. As Kreisler made his mark during the early twentieth century, he received invitations from Jacques Thibaud to participate in informal chamber music gatherings taking place at Thibaud's home. With the other guests including Georges Enesco, Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, Harold Bauer, Eugene Ysäye and Raoul Pugno, it was clear at that time that Kreisler had reached a place among the ranks of the world's top string players.

While we all know that Kreisler is the dedicatee of Ysäye 's Sonata in E Minor, Op. 27, No. 4 and Ysäye the dedicatee of both Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo and Caprice Viennoise, it is vitally important for us to know that these men forged a friendship while Ysaye was at the highest point of his career - one that continued well past Kreisler's rise to the top. Such was their friendship, recalled Joseph Gingold, that after a series of concerts in Brussels that Kreisler "immediately went to see the master, and they embraced, and Ysäye said 'Where is the gendarme?' And Kreisler said, 'She's downstairs. She'll be up in a moment.' "

Biancolli writes that Ysäye 's reference to Kreisler's wife "as 'the gendarme' (or "constable") reveals no small familiarity with Kreisler's personal life and illustrates as well the relaxed nature of their friendship....Two such Old World gentlemen could enjoy each other without allowing anything so crass as ambition (or a cranky wife) to stand in the way."
And going further into the life of Fritz Kreisler:   after he reached the "superstar" status, he is said to have become Jascha Heifetz' number-one spokesperson in New York after the latter's triumphant and spellbinding debut!

Having spoken with my friends, I am again proud to know them as human beings:   while one has taken the high road and recently arranged a meeting with her offending party, the other has focused her efforts on producing her concert series and preparing for the filming of a documentary on her life.   It is truly wonderful to see two people rise above human nature to take the "high road":   not only are they at peace with themselves, each of them is at peace with her world regardless of the external circumstances, with the focus firmly planted on the self.
Going back to Ysäye, Heifetz, and Kreisler, though:  if THESE guys, three men that we now revere, could be so relaxed with each other, WHY do some of us who have not reached those levels treat others with such gross disrespect?
Perhaps we should pay equal attention to these great men as they were in the world - GREAT MEN - as opposed to simply swooning over their recordings.
Anxious for your thoughts,

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 11:19 AM

Kreisler was not only a wonderful violinist. He was quite sophisticated,spoke many langages,knew Latin and Greek, ancient history and was also a wonderful pianist. It was not just enough during that era to be simply a violinist. Today, we can sense that lack of knowledge even among the top fiddlers out there. Violinists of that era were like messengers. Kreisler was very sensitive to misery and poverty. All of his fees for the Victor company went to charity. Now, just think about the Beatles or Elvis who would have done the same. Kreisler,with Caruso was a superstar and he sold millions,and millions of recordings. He was truly a great philantropic. Ysaïe was the same kind of person and encouraged many young composers, like Debussy,Chausson and Guillaume Lekeu. They were really helping each other at the time. Thanks for your highly interesting blog. Marc

From al ku
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 12:25 PM

from a realistic perspective, here is a question:

would you help out your fellow musicians/colleagues if by doing so you are

1. better off?

2. worse off?

3. neither?

i am not  a musician, but in my line of work, or if i can imagine that many others in other lines of work, i would probably help out if i am better off;  possibly help out if neither, depending on the situation.  however, i would not help out if i know for sure that i will be worse off.  perhaps the only exception is when family and very close friends are involved.  even in that case, i may be financially worse off but i can live with a better peace of mind, so overall, i am better off.

i am not sure what worse off means for musicians, but i can imagine it can be different forms of competition, potential present/ future loss of income, potential present/future loss of status/reputation. if a new sheriff walks into the town of previously a singular sheriff,  it is a set-up for a duel.   in the real world, nothing is black and white; relationships are built on feelings and emotions, not on resume and in the world of musician, not on playing abilities unfortunately.  if you are in a position of power or leadership, how would you regard someone under your control who is a great player but not a "team player"?  you have been there right? and it is not easy to handle right?

sam gave very touching examples of several masters being nice guys and good citizens.  the counterpoint to that, not mentioned, is the more complicated dealings of another master, stern, who had helped some musicians  ( ma, perlman?)  while hurted careers of others (rosand?) as claimed at least once in a while on this forum.

i suspect the behaviors mentioned above can be explored if not explained by answering the question that i have proposed.  stern possibly did not see ma and perlman as threat but took a different view toward rosand.

since sam was coy about his 2 friends, i would not speculate further...

another point raised by sam, if not a major reasoning of his blog, is this:  if those gentlemen masters could behave honorably, we should follow suit.   if they can do it, we certainly can.  but in reality, that reasoning does not necessarily make sense.  "they" are more successful and therefore more secure about their places in life and history.  "we" are not anywhere close to success and therefore because of this "insecurity",  we tend to protect our turf more tightly and watch out for our own welfare in a more guarded fashion. 

before we understand a musician, we have to understand the musician as a human being.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 1:16 PM

Hi Al: when you behave destructive against others, you are more destructive about yourself. Yes,insecurity is part of this kind of behaviour. Being insecure means also being immature as a person. In the world of music right now, there are many predators around. I know some famous violinists who cant make it in New-York. Some gifted composers are simply ignored. The best pianists  are not as well known as they should be. We seek to much for the spectacular ones, not for the true musicians. Menuhin was in state of schock when Heifetz proposed him to form a kind of a syndical association for soloists, in order to protect themselves against foreign musicians... You do not serve the highest interest of music when acting that way. Think about violinist Philip Hirshorn who never made it in the U.S.A. He was probably the most gifted one since Kogan during the early sixties. Before, great artists such as Kreisler and many others were encouraging young musicians and composers to find their way. Today, you need to be part of a fan club of a few elected, not necessarly the best, to achieve success.. Things changed a lot these past decades.It became more than ever a question of money and public image.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 1:54 PM

Thank you both for your responses - very thought-provoking indeed.

To Mr. Ku:   Regarding this - "if those gentlemen masters could behave honorably, we should follow suit.   if they can do it, we certainly can.  but in reality, that reasoning does not necessarily make sense."    I must ask why in reality that it would not make sense to behave honorably at all times towards our fellow human beings and (if I may be a bit metaphysical) travel companions on this continuum - something larger than any of us and our petty squabbles - called the history of musicmaking.

Second, it was my intention to keep the names of my friends private, as to share their names and positions in this entry would be akin to turning - a well-respected and cherised resource - into the musical equivalent of US Weekly.

From Michael Avagliano
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Regarding your specific question, Sam -- why can't we all behave as those three excellent gentlemen did -- there's a few answers in my mind:

1. In each case, one man was further along in his career than the other. Ysaye had already garnered fame and fortune while encouraging Kreisler, and likewise with Kreisler and Heifetz. It's much easier to be helpful to someone else in our profession if you've already reached a high level, not only of artistic capability but professional and financial recognition.

2. "It was a different time" might seem like a copout, but it truly was. There simply wasn't as much competition across an international scene as there is now, and the world was far less connected, which allowed each to have their own sphere of influence without it being impinged upon by others if they chose. 

And finally, of course, some people are just insecure and don't get that our profession isn't necessarily a zero-sum game. If I get a gig, it doesn't necessarily take a gig away from you, and if you're hired to play with a particular group and I'm not, it doesn't mean that I was less qualified or that you don't deserve it. I've often observed situations among violinists where they're offended at being seated a stand farther back in a section, when everyone is being paid the same amount of money to play in the section. They take it as a sign that the contractor or the conductor thinks that they're not as good as the people in front of them. (Speaking as a conductor, it's often the opposite -- I want the players I know are solid as a rock at the back of a section, so I don't have to worry about them.)

 The short answer to all this is that some people simply don't know how to be happy with themselves and their own course in life. Some of those people also don't know, or don't want to put the effort forth, to change their career track if they're not happy. And so they take it out on the violinist next to them, or in front of them, and engage in backstabbing in order to try and better their own position. It's unfortunate, because it's really not the way to get ahead in this profession or any other.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM

Different times? I agree with that in the sense that people were less spoiled than today and behave in a different way. Two days ago there was a revolution in the streets of Montreal because Montreal hochey team won agains Pittsburg. And this is typical: violence is a common reaction today even in sportive events. I do not say it did not exist at the time, but respect was something more common. We are educated in a way to enhance our ego at the maximum today. It is true,competition is everywhere in every field. The values are totally reversed because of financial interests. There were many "Mecenes" out there for the arts in general prior to the second world war. Now, they are the ones who pay millions and millions for baseball players, hochey players and any professional sport category. It was a must in the U.S.A or in Europe to be a fine collecter of instruments, like Henry Ford or Horace Havemayer in Hartford and to help careers in the field of music. Kreisler,Ysaïe, Horowitz and Caruso were huge stars back then, as much as Westlife or Madonna today... Something drastic occured in the world of classical music. But I agree with the author of this Blog. By simple individual action and reflexion,things can be changed, behaviours also. Lets think about it.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 5:42 PM

Hi, I agree with Mark (and it's like this in life in general... not just in music).  My very humble opinion is that schools where they teach to groups of many students at the same time is just a... joke!

If we look at the masters of the past, I believe they had much more individual coaching (and sometimes just for sheer passion) rather than institutional courses where you are as a number...  The only exception to this would be for learning to play music with others where obviously you need to be many students. Thus maybe you can be more "complete" with a lot of individual attention.  As I always joke (but perhaps it's not a joke), that was the ere where violin teachers use to do monthly students recitals in their living room and where the stuents could devote all their time to violin without having to perform at high tech. school in addition of their musical activities...  

Good luck to your collegues too!  I unserstand so much what you say... My friends and I have a lot of these stories we could tell about the science program as well...   Again, many sucessful wouldn't be there if they had been taught the way many are taught...  (they tend to forget this!)


From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 5:53 PM

Perhaps one of the best ways to counter the cutthroat competitiveness is to start an organization of like-minded people who believe in the same principles you do and simply want to be treated with mutual respect. I play in two orchestras, one of which has had strained relations with its music director and felt the need to seek collective bargaining to establish an official legally binding agreement while the other has no need of such agreements because everyone is paid at the same rate per service, including the conductor, and people are treated with understanding and respect creating an environment conducive to creative endeavor with the  efforts of many contributing to the goal of beautiful expressive music-making. In my teaching I have seen the same effect. There are ways to give criticism that are  productive and help the student understand what needs to be done to make positive changes and ways that create guilt,  shame, hurt feelings, discouragement and dejection. We learn perhaps best, not through any manual of etiquette and good manners, but through the school of hard knocks always trying to think how we would feel if treated a certain way and would we want to treat others that way.  I would rather err on the side of civility and giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than treat them as an adversary in a "dog eat dog" world. Fighting fire with fire can just escalate to the point where everything and everyone gets consumed.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 6:02 PM

Anne-Marie, it is a very interesting point about devotion of teachers. I remember Taras Gabora,one of my teachers ( among his students was Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the L.A. Symphoniy orchestra) who gave so much time for us. Concert at his private house, scholarship to all his students for the summer. We used to travel with him in New-York to assist and play in master-classes of great violinists. I forgot about that happy period of my life...

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 7:57 PM

Such thoughtful posts, and so very well put. What can be added further?

I have seen more and more people feeling that they are entitled to what they are not.  Their biggest concern is themselves.  I was raised that one earns according to one's abilities!  And to step aside and allow those who can do better their places to do so and accept my place according to my abilities... no more... no less!  If I wish to step ahead then I must work hard in order to qualify justly any place further or higher than where I currently am.  Focus on what I do have and do not be preoccupied on those things that I cannot and do not have.  Never look down on those that are not as accomplished as I, and share your joy with people!  And rejoice with others when they accomplish something.

In all honesty, I feel that cutthroat behaviors and Narcissism is instilled during a person's upbringing.

From al ku
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 8:52 PM

"I must ask why in reality that it would not make sense to behave honorably at all times towards our fellow human beings and (if I may be a bit metaphysical) travel companions on this continuum - something larger than any of us and our petty squabbles - called the history of musicmaking."

allow me a simple example.  on this forum, often there are beginners asking for help, say, how to cross a string, or do vibrato, without a teacher.  now, i think it is a honorable and helpful thing to tell the beginners something to think about or work on.  others may think that without a teacher, learning online like this, or telling people bits and pieces, is not a honorable thing to do because it can be very misleading to some.    to the persons who have asked the questions, they may feel that it is not honorable for those with the knowledge to hold back, that they are not being helpful or giving enough.  so being honorable can be construed by others as not so because of perspectives and interpretations.

i understand, appreciate and support that you leaving the details out of your friends' situations.  it is, um,  a honorable thing to do:).  yet at the same time, because we readers do not really get the real scoop,  we can only take your word for it through your perspective which, unfortunately, despite you being an uprighteous person you have always been, robs others of the opportunities to the facts and thus their own conclusions.

but the big picture you have presented is a very meaningful one.  in fact, i have never heard one rocker guy bad-mouthing another .  they always compliment each other.  THAT DUDE KNOWS HIS SHEET.  THAT GAL IS HOT.   collectively they push their arts forward.

meanwhile, classical musicians sitting in their little ivory towers bash each other whenever there is a chance, as if it brings joy and honor to pick others apart. of course the future is bleak when everything is always referenced back couple generations because the present and the future are not happening thanks to you as a whole.    jealousy, small mindedness, narrow mindedness and other good stuffs,,, no wonder students quit because they are made to remember what is wrong with them instead of what is right.  nobody in his/her right mind will put up with S like that.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 9:14 PM

Musicians as a whole have to be somewhat competitive.  Anyone who can't take the heat of auditions, seating challenges in school, all of that, is kicked to the curb early on.  Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by the supply and demand problem; there are many more fine musicians out there than there are paying and prestigious gigs for them. 

Even so, this is no cause for bad behavior.  We live, however, in a time and place where rudeness and coarseness are pervasive.  If you haven't actually listened to the lyrics of some of the rap, hip-hop, and other popular music, do so.  Your jaw will drop. Customers have been trampled to death at sales at large stores.  Listen to some of what passes for political discourse.  When was the last time someone cut you off in traffic?  We don't live in a world where helpfulness and courtesy are common, let alone often rewarded.

Musicians are no better and no worse than anyone else.  Most high achievers didn't get where they are by being nice (although most didn't choose to be nasty, either).  Violinists in particular tend to be Type A's- more so than violists or cellists.  It's disappointing that two of your friends are having to deal with bad actors, and it shouldn't have to be that way, but I don't find it surprising.

From Dion Ackermann
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 10:20 PM

IF neither foes nor loving friends can hurt  you,

If all men count with you but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And - which is more - You'll be a MAN, my son!




From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 10:33 PM

This is all a little cryptic to me but my teacher was a student of Harold Hess, who was a student of Cesar Thompson and Eugene Ysaye. He heard Ysaye, Thibaud and Kreisler in their all night gatherings and once was invited to take a seat for one work. He reportedly demurred. 

Hess noted that Ysaye and Kreisler played the viola most exquisitely. 

From charles johnston
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 12:25 AM

 I wouldn't use Amy Biancolli's biography as a source for anything you believe to be reliable. Freud did not play chamber music with any member of the Kreisler household or anyone else. He didn't play the violin. He was tone-deaf. "Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy"  is not respectable scholarship.     The ubiquity of backstabbing in the music world is familiar to anyone who has played in a professional orchestra for more than a few minutes. One of my two great teachers- Marvin Morgenstern- said that the way to deal with it is to speak with your playing, not your mouth. As far as the mouth goes, compliment other's playing as much as you can. It's amazing how much harder it is to "badmouth"  someone who has complimented one's playing. Another important point is that  the utterance by the "badmouther" says more about him or her than it does about the badmouthee".     Charles Johnston

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 1:30 AM

Charles: Freud was an amateur violinist in his youth and he was friend with Samuel Kreisler. This is related by other biographers. He did play chamber music at the family house In Vienna and the young Kreisler was surrounded by famous physicians and musicians. Freud was fascinated by Fritz Kreisler and relates in his own medical  analysis some episode concerning the young prodigy of 10 years old, more specifically when he was in Paris with his mother studying with Lambert Massart. Samuel Kreisler was the Freud's family doctor... This is well documented by Jones who relates many episodes about Freud's life in general. I believe Amy Biancolli to be reliable and honest.

From al ku
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 2:33 AM

marc, just read your post directed at me.  even though i do not know all the details you have presented, i must say i agree with the sentiment of your points.  whereas there are truly nice musical people out there, benevolent souls who extend helping hand to others in the name of music,  they are a dying breed.   there are many reasons pro or con on this development.  when music is institutionalized and commercialized, it is usually done at the expense of humanity.  we become more of a number and possibly treat others more like a smaller number:)

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 3:17 PM

To Charles: As requested, the reference about Freud the musician, is the following. FREUD ET L'UNIVERS SONORE, written by EDITH LECOURT, L' HARNATTAN EDITION PARIS 2007- TITLE OF CHAPTER: FREUD THE MUSICIAN, page 188- LE PIANO ET LA SOEUR CADETTE, page 168.

All studied music in the Freud familiy. Sigmund was an amateur violinist and his younger sister a pianist. At page 168, you have the description of an episode of his life when, at the request of Samuel Kreisler, Freud went to see Anna Kreisler and son Fritz,10 years old, who was studying with Lambert Massart. All the book of Edith Lecourt is about Freud related to music,his background, and relations with various musicians. That is the reason why the book is entitled "L'UNIVERS SONORE DE SIGMUND FREUD "

From charles johnston
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 3:17 PM

 Mr. Villeneuve-  What other biographers said that  Freud played the violin? Lochner says only that Freud played chess with Samuel (sic?) Kreisler, not that he played the violin. I would very much like so see your documentation that Freud was a musician of any kind. I interviewed an important Freud scholar (senior faculty at New York Psychoanalytic) about this very issue, and he was absolute in his certainty that Freud did not play the violin. I gather that you are a violinist. I did not know that you are also a scholar. I wonder what your non-musical credentials are.         Charles Johnston

From charles johnston
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 3:35 PM

 Mr. Villeneuve- In the example you cite there is no reference to Freud's studying the violin. You claim that that there are other references to Freud's musicianship in the work you refer to, but you cite no examples, nor do you give the credentials of the author. "French scholarship" is generally an oxymoron, and is not taken seriously by the American psychiatric community.        Charles Johnston

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 3:47 PM

Charles, I am not only a violinist and a composer. I am also an attorney at law practicing mainly in the criminal field. But I do not think this to be the major issue. I gave you the reference. Just read the book and stop being so incredulous. I was kind enough to give you the information.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 3:54 PM

Ok now,french bashing. This discussion is over for me. The main subject is about stabbing others...this is exactly what you are doing sir,concerning me, Amy Biancolli and french psychiatrist writing about Freud.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 6:06 PM

Thank you all for your very interesting and valid responses.    While everything posted here is logical and rational, I have to go back to my original argument and use yet another anecdote to press (if I may) my point.

During an interview that was included in The Art of the Violin, Ida Haendel, who is "no slouch of a fiddler" ;), speaks of seeing Ginette Neveu for the first time.   I think they were both students of Carl Flesch at the time (and am grateful for any correction should I be mistaken), and Ida Haendel said that she laughed upon seeing Ms. Neveu walking into the class - typical human nature.    "And then she started playing the violin and let me tell you I DID NOT laugh," came shortly afterwards - RISING ABOVE human nature....and they were both students.

To Mr. Ku:   thank you for your very kind references to my character.

While it may be true that  the very successful did not get where they are by "being nice", perhaps that is more of "playing nice" - and we do know that "nice" does not mean "pushover", "passive", "wishy-washy", etc.    In fact, one of the finest violinists that I know, one with whom I grew up and who was a beacon for all of us in the little state of South Carolina, was and is still known not only for her violin playing but also for her very kind and beautiful spirit - not only has no one to my knowledge said anything negative about Marcia Littley de Arias, I have never heard her speak ill of anyone else.

Additionally, the violinist Kyung Wha Chung (and it was wonderful to hear "echoes" of her in Elena Urioste this past weekend) is quoted as saying "My only goal was to reach that level" upon having arrived at Juilliard from Korea and finding herself shocked at the level of violin playing around her.   (Nigel Kennedy, in his autobiography, refers to the DeLay studio as akin to "Olympic boxing camp"!)  In later interviews, Ms. Chung exhibits both a very philosophical attitude and a wonderful sense of humility as well as reverence for the art form and her early lessons with Galamian.

It does seem that when the focus is in the right place that all envy, backbiting, et cetera seem to melt away...and it would be wonderful (and ideal, of course) if we could all stay in the place of awe and desire to be excellent - not at the expense of others....



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 7:53 PM

Interesting discussion!

There is also a difference between telling I don't like x thing in x person's playing (just as a personal opinion) and I don't like this person or wach look at this etc (when you do not even know the person)... 


From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 9:35 PM

 Charles Johnston, Are you the Charles Johnston of LGF?

From Zhang Zhang
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 9:56 PM

 Thank You Sam, for this very relevant piece. From the discussions that followed, you can see that it is a topic oncerning many musicians.

Back stabbing, bad mouthing is common place in many violin sections of professional orchestras. So many violinists were told when they were young to reach for the stars, being pushed by parents and teachers towards fame and glory. When that was clearly no longer an option, many became orchestral players. There are some who genuinely love playing orchestra and is happy with their career. Others have never reconciled with the ambition that was imprinted upon them since early childhood, they can never feel at peace, sitting in a section, instead of up front, playing a concerto. And within the section, they can never forgive those who have a 'better' position. Since their own fate is 'doomed' according to their early visions of greatness. They feel much bitterness and frustration, which has nothing to do with their ability to function or contribute in the ensemble. They may be excellent players, important to the section and the greater ensemble. But inside, they can never be content, because they are not the 'best' .This inner frustration leads to outward aggression, towards colleagues who are younger, stronger. Its not only the section player who are envious of the leaders, it can also be the other way, section leaders who have won their place at a time when the particular orchestra was less excellent, when the audition standards were less challenging, they have a secure place up front, but they fear of losing respect from the younger generation who are better instrumentalists. These people can and do try to arrest any advancement of younger musicians. When sitting at the Jury, they will systematically vote against individuals that threaten them the most. Fear leads to shameful actions. The back stabbing can also come from the front of the section. Sometimes pushing the young people out of the orchestra, seeking a better working place elsewhere. This insecurity , fear and hatred of those who are strong is sad, dangerous but very common. 

One concertmaster I know had said to a group of section players: You know the definition of the word 'Colleague"? It means some one who does the same things as you, but just not quite as well.'  He told it a s a joke, but none of the listeners thought it was very funny. Because this was the concertmaster's way of putting them in their 'rightful place'.  

its not the Music we play, its the people we must play it with that creates the negative feelings that we all experience from time to time. I personally feel the only way to 'survive' and thrive in such environments is to find one's own way to enjoy music and nurture one's confidence by sharing music with other people. I my self started playing with Jazz and Rock musicians, people who can not read music even. We played in a bar once a week, there was drinking, laughing, talking, dancing, but the people also enjoyed and appreciated our performance without passing judgement. They would clap when they liked certain songs and go back to their talking when the music seemed less interesting to them. It was a liberating thing to play with people who did not judge or hate each other. Because we had chosen to play together, we were not obliged. Having that taste of freedom and choice was how I survived a rather  toxic atmosphere of the violin section  when I first joined an professional orchestra.  Only a few was all it took to ruin the ambience of the entire section, there was nothing we could do about it, until the retirement of those individuals or for management to take some action. One violinist left the orchestra because of it. She is far from retirement age. But she just could not take it anymore. And she even had a leadership position. But I have been told there are such cases in almost all professional orchestras.

I think there needs to be more attention paid to the mental health of an ensemble. because the music we play deserves our very best.  

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 16, 2010 at 11:10 PM

I have been reading the book, "Indivisible by Four" by, Arnold Steinhardt. (Both violinist of the Guarneri Quartet taught my teacher).  Steinhardt pondered about what a rarity it has been that the four of them stayed together in light of how so many quartets went through turnovers or just self destructed not just conflict of character but over things that are the topic of this discussion.

From al ku
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 2:33 AM

sam, perhaps dudamel is your kinda of guy.  there was a segment on his musical mission on tonight's 60 mins (available on, attempting to convert the la kids.

it is refreshing to see yet another non-american who takes america by the storm because america itself is just too lame, stupid, lazy, self centered and waiting in rot for handout.

correction,,,earlier i mistook one poster for another:)  sorry.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 2:55 AM

America is composed by millions of people with as much versions of personalities and behaviours ; )  I guess that the few rotten apples can unfourtunately spoil the reputation of all the apple basket... 


From Zhang Zhang
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 3:37 AM

 Just to be clear, I work in an European orchestra, most  European musicians I know actually think American orchestra players are more friendly and amicable to each other...

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 8:18 AM

This seems to be something that's more prevalent in the world of classical music. There is, I feel, a side to the classical world that can be competitive and elitist. And as you say, this is often not amongst the greats, but lesser spirits who are seeking recognition.

These days I mainly play traditional music, which I like to think is much more inclusive. I'm a musician of rather modest attainments, yet I've often played informally with top professionals at sessions and festivals. After all, traditional music is hardly the high-road to fame and fortune, so everyone involved is doing it for the sheer love of the thing. The best players are almost unfailingly courteous and encouraging, and more than happy to sit in with anyone who genuinely shares their joy in making music together. At the professional level they are always promoting each other's work and guesting on each other's recordings. All in all, I find it a more wholesome atmosphere.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 10:28 AM

 I think it's hard to know, from this distance of time, how people of former centuries really treated each other.  I can't say that I found the quote about the "gendarme" particularly revealing about the relationship between Kreisler and Ysaye.  It strikes my modern sensibilities as both  sexist and condescending.  But since I wasn't there, and I know it was a different time, place, and culture, I'm happy to reserve judgement and say to myself that I will give them the benefit of the doubt.  That doesn't mean, though, that I think it's necessary to revere them either, based on this incomplete and imperfect knowledge. 

These days we know a lot about other people's lives, perhaps too much.  A century and a half from now, historians are likely to be able to know intimate and sordid details from the lives of even ordinary people who lived today in a way that they never could a century and a half ago about even the most famous household names.  I just don't think such comparisons are very revealing.  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 2:14 PM

 My other, related, thought is that the great violinists of today--Perlman, Chang, Bell, Hahn, etc.--may or may not be personal friends with one another, but they also behave with utmost grace and professionalism toward others.  Comparing oneself with them--or with Kreisler and Ysaye--is comparing apples and oranges on so many levels.  My opinion is that, in general, it is better to try not to compare oneself with others, "great" or not.  Comparisons will inevitably happen due to the competitive nature of the world we live in, and to human nature, but that is not a reason to go looking to create additional reasons to do so.  There are plenty of reasons to treat one's colleagues with respect and to behave like a decent human being that are much better than "because we think Kreisler and Ysaye did so."

From Zhang Zhang
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 5:56 PM

 I think there is every reason to 'revere' artists like Ysaye or Kreisler. They were great violinists, musicians, composers and artists. Today we have people who are superb instrumentalists and some are also wonderful musicians. But none have arrived at the hight of artistry of Ysaye and Kreisler. Certainly not Chang or Han, not yet anyway. Referring to a good friend's wife as the 'gendarme', it is shared between close friends as a inside joke. In our modern era, woman are called much worse things everyday on TV , in pop songs and in real life.  In my personal view, those two great artists are true gentlemen of their era, their legacy can not be surpassed. They are not the only idols we have, but to dismiss them would be a disregard to true greatness and a real loss to those who can not understand their deserved place in history.

From charles johnston
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 6:54 PM

 Mr. Villeneuve-  Since you are putatively a lawyer, it is surprising that you failed to notice that your quotation regarding Freud's meeting states only that Freud met with Kreisler in Paris while he (Kreisler) was studying with Massart. This does not presuppose, imply, or entail that Freud was himself a musician. You have still provided not a shred of evidence that Freud was any kind of musician at all. Your claim that I am "back-stabbing" is an ad hominem argument and is therefore ipso facto invalid. At any event, there is no sense to the claim that I am stabbing you in the back; I think one would say that I'm stabbing you in the front. In other words, I am showing you directly and openly that some of your claims are incorrect and unwarranted. That is now accomplished. Another point seems to have escaped your notice: How well do you think Freud would have had to play to be a regular chamber music player at the Kreislers? There are ubiquitous articles, photographs, even a favorable review of his playing by a critic, of Einstein's playing. But you can't find a single reference to Freud as a violinist except for Ms. Biancolli's. That reference does not stand critical investigation. I am sure she is quite trustworthy with regard to, say, money. But she is no scholar.   Charles Johnston

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 18, 2010 at 10:10 PM

 Zhang, By all means, revere them for their artistry and their violin playing.  Of that there is no question.  But that wasn't the point.

From Zhang Zhang
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 2:06 AM

Karen, thank you for the response, English being my third language, it is possible  the nuances of your post had escaped me, pleas kindly indicate exactly what your point was.



From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on May 19, 2010 at 11:33 PM

Charles,once again, I gave you the reference about the book on Freud the musician. READ IT!!! But you have already rejected the scholar of the french psychiatrist who wrote it as being an "Oxymorron".  So why being so insistant. Your own reference about a vague conversation with an obscur scholar from New-York is not convincing. What a waste of energy!!!  Miss Biancolli gives all the references of her assertions at the end of her book. Anyways, who really cares about such insignificant details... Let us forget about this and be constructive in this very interesting Blog. Let it be for our friends on

Thanks for your consideration, Marc

From Zhang Zhang
Posted on May 21, 2010 at 6:01 PM

 Merci Marc. well said.

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