Soloists Compared to Top Orchestral Musicians

March 19, 2017 at 01:49 AM · For the sake of curiosity and discussion I wanted to start off a thread comparing the qualities that differentiate between soloists and orchestral musicians at the highest levels.

So I guess the synopsis of what I'm trying to ask would be could the top orchestral musicians such as principal desks of the major orchestras like CSO, LSO, NYPhil, etc. have had successful solo careers? And then vice versa! Would the typical soloist fair successfully as an orchestral musician due to the difference in play styles between the two? Obviously there's a difference between the qualities it takes to be a good orchestral musician (cohesion, blend,and I'm sure many others) and a good soloist (powerful tone, extreme confidence, and unique creativity stand out to me). Of course all of these qualities are equally important to any musician. Then of course everybody has their own preference, and I doubt that there is much envy of the others position on either side. What do you guys think?

Replies (21)

March 19, 2017 at 02:24 AM · I have wondered about this topic also!!! I look forward to hearing what people have to say about this!

March 19, 2017 at 02:34 AM · Some concertmasters also have successful solo careers (at least on a modest scale, since you cannot both be a first-tier soloist and a top orchestra's concertmaster, since you can't be two places at once), or have succeeded as soloists before becoming concertmasters.

A concertmaster will generally play differently in an orchestral context (where they have to blend) than they do when they're playing as a soloist.

March 19, 2017 at 02:49 AM · Well, you can google the bio of great concertmasters of the past such as Joe Gingold, Joe Silverstein, and Glenn Dicterow to get some idea. The careers of today's top CMs such Robert Chen( CSO), David Kim (Philadelphia Orchestra) and Frank Huang (NY Phil) are also interesting.

March 19, 2017 at 03:12 AM · My favorite concertmaster-turned-soloist is Josef Sivo, who left his position at the Vienna Philharmonic after about a decade to pursue a solo career. He's got lovely recordings of Prokofiev No. 1 and the Glazunov concertos.

March 19, 2017 at 03:53 AM · Personally, I think the difference usually boils down to temperament and a somewhat higher level of natural talent (for top soloists like Perlman).

But, I would say many orchestral musicians are much more musical than many of the robot or semi-robot soloists of today.

March 19, 2017 at 04:02 AM · For soloists especially, there is the darker side. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how good you are, they just won't ask you to come back.

Google the story on I. Stern and Aaron Rosand.

March 19, 2017 at 05:57 AM · These days, you have to be a terrific young concertizing soloist already in order to get into school such as Curtis. But apparently no one will say "I'm a soloist" even at Curtis. Why? They are all superb players and all have what you'd call “solo qualities”, but some of the best young soloists are more than happy to take a concertmaster position in a large orchestra (e.g. Nikki Chooi, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). Others are doing great as chamber musicians concertizing around the world, like the Dover Quartet. Most professional violinists are trained as soloists and, given the opportunity, they can all play like a soloist. What and where they ended up doing have a lot to do with opportunities than their quality of playing. David is right, there are a lot of business side of classical music world is complicated and not openly talked about.

March 19, 2017 at 09:39 AM · In the end it boils down to ego. Not all players want to be center stage, make or break, every night. (Though they may have thought so when they were fifteen years old.) It's a very tough life.

Every CM of today's generation can play all the big concertos. Not every soloist however has the patience to do a CMs job, making sure the entire string section is on the same page re bowings and dealing with other musical micromanagment issues that make an orchestra great.

March 19, 2017 at 12:28 PM · Not all top soloists make good chamber musicians either.

March 19, 2017 at 12:33 PM · I guess I haven't heard any of the "robot soloists" that AO is referring to. Maybe I've just been fortunate that all the violinists I've heard (here in sleepy Blacksburg Virginia) have been outstanding. But I suppose time and posterity will filter the performances and recordings of those less musical from those more so.

When David Kim is sitting in his chair with Josh Bell standing a few feet away, my guess is that Kim is not thinking "there is no way I could play like that." My guess is that he's thinking "I'm glad that's not me up there, sweating through my clothes."

March 19, 2017 at 01:50 PM · There is a "charisma factor" that the "top" soloists have. Without that there really is no reason to pay to watch someone play - you can just buy their lower price recordings and hear all they have to offer - which can be super substantial.

Case in point:

As a research pathologist a Columbia, my father's lab was on Welfare Island in the middle of New York's East River. On one of his wanderings through the chronic disease wards there in the early 1930s he happened upon a particular recovering TB patient with whom he started chatting. It turned out this man had been concertmaster of the WOR symphony (i don't know his name). He was soon to be released and his doctor had told him he could start playing the violin a limited amount. He chose to do some of that rehabilitative playing with my father's string quartet (Dad was a life-long amateur violinist with a Stefano Scarampella violin). Years later Dad told me it was like playing with Heifetz. A lot of what they did was let the former CM play violin concertos and the rest of the quartet read off the piano accompaniments. After a year or less the former CM was ready to resume his career but decided instead to join a "popular band" (I think it was Paul Whiteman) where he could earn 4x what the CM job had paid - so he could pay off his hospital bills.

When Dad had asked him why he wasn't a soloist, since he was so good, he replied that you had to have a certain "stage presence" to succeed at that.

Nowadays these top soloists bounce all over the world and although the top-top ones make very good money, they sacrifice an awful lot of personal life that a mostly stay-near-home orchestra player can have.

Also, when you think about orchestra musicians and soloists, realize that all wind players in every orchestra play solo every time they blow.

And remember that David Nadian (of Suzuki recordings "fame") was a major symphony CM before he went solo and "popular band." And Mischa Mischakoff was both CM and sought-after soloist well into old age.

March 19, 2017 at 02:15 PM · David, you should also include Steven Staryk on your list of the great concertmasters of the past.He was of both the orchestral and soloist worlds.His bio speaks for itself.

Interesting post Andrew!

March 19, 2017 at 04:04 PM · Peter, thanks. My list wasn't meant to be an exhaustive one; it was a bit "Americano-centric".

March 19, 2017 at 04:55 PM · That's OK David.I wasn't waving my Canadian flag around.Just going down memory lane and recalling Mr.Staryk making the recording of the Shostakovitch Violin Concerto and Ein Heldenleben when I was with him.He also played the Tchaikovsky with the RCM orchestra combined with the TSO.It's on Youtube I think.Wonderful teacher to boot....

March 19, 2017 at 05:16 PM · Different focus, likely top tier technical equipment.

There are "boring" and "musical" soloists and concertmasters. It has nothing to do with what their musical focus is, IMHO.

I disagree that modern soloists must all be homogeneous and "boring". Some of the ones I like don't sound anything like each other, vibrate differently, choose different slides as well as sounding differently when they use similar slides. If anything, nowadays I hear a resurgence of the "individual sound"-it used to be more boring some years ago, or perhaps it never was and I wasn't paying attention.

The "golden era" is fine too, though. One doesn't need to dislike Milstein in order to be able to appreciate the modern artist, or viceversa.

March 19, 2017 at 06:27 PM · Paul Kochanski was a concertmaster before becoming a soloist. I think that a lot of people have the chops, but that not performing enough in that role may make the difference. The former head of the cello section at the Colorado Symphony, Silver Ainomae, to me, could have a career as a soloist, from hearing him perform in that role. I believe a lot of people that could, end up playing in orchestras, because they don't want to travel. I also heard Erin Keefe of Minnesota play a stupendous Brahms 3rd violin sonata a while ago, and don't doubt that should could easily match a lot of soloists I've heard.

Other orchestral musicians I've heard either got nervous, or didn't have a huge sound, but I imagine that those are things you can work out.

March 19, 2017 at 06:37 PM · Brian Reagin is an active soloist in addition to being the concertmaster of the NC symphony.

March 19, 2017 at 11:00 PM · I feel like "robot soloists" is something of an urban legend. I challenge the poster who made the statement to name names. I certainly have heard robotic playing in my time, even at surprisingly high technical levels, but not in a concert hall.

March 20, 2017 at 12:40 AM · I agree with Sarah. If you watch any international violin competition, you'll not likely find any "robot soloist" who made to the semi-final, let alone won big prizes that could lead to international solo gigs. Even the finalists don't always become world-trotting concertizing soloists, as there're a whole lot of factors have to be considered.

Incidentally, am I the only person who feels that it's kind of insulting to the orchestra players by suggesting that there’s something lacking in them because they are not soloists? I’m sure it’s not intended but I have to point it out because this kind of comparison presupposes some quite problematic ideas.

March 20, 2017 at 04:19 AM · Yixi, I know what you mean. But I'm not worried. I think (at least I hope) that you don't get to be a concertmaster like Erin Keefe or David Kim without being an unbelievably good violinist. I'll bet you anything that the soloists have tremendous respect for them.

March 20, 2017 at 05:00 AM ·

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