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Rite of Passage

By Lawrence van Gelder
22 Nov 2013

Glenn Dicterow
photo by Chris Lee

Throughout Glenn Dicterow’s final season as the Philharmonic’s Concertmaster, the Orchestra salutes the man and musician who has been a pillar of its sound and musicality for more than three decades.

Please! Don’t call it retirement. Perhaps, “a change of direction.” Nevertheless, the bittersweet truth remains: Glenn Dicterow is bidding au revoir to the New York Philharmonic after what will have been 34 years as its renowned and revered Concertmaster. Over this period the Orchestra has given almost 6,000 concerts, and Mr. Dicterow’s performances have spanned the globe, from Beijing and Pyongyang to Moscow, from the White House to Central Park, under the music directorships of Zubin Mehta (who appointed him), Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, and Alan Gilbert — not to overlook innumerable and distinguished guest conductors.

Nor can any account of his virtuosity disregard the more than 200 solo performances with the Philharmonic, as well as his guest appearances with orchestras from Leipzig to Manila — plus chamber recitals, an international array of master classes, notable faculty positions, and recordings that straddle the repertoire from Bernstein, Copland, and Ives to Shostakovich, Rimsky- Korsakov, and Richard Strauss.

If parting, in Shakespeare’s words, is sweet sorrow, count Alan Gilbert among the mourners. “For years, Glenn has been the embodiment and personification of what makes the New York Philharmonic great,” he says. “I am, of course, very sad to know that he will be leaving — working with Glenn has been a joy and an inspiration since I became Music Director — but I understand his desire to begin a new chapter in his musical life.”

See? Not retirement, but “a new chapter.” Mr. Dicterow himself terms his departure “a change of direction.” And of coasts: he is heading West. Already he has begun his duties as the Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music, a full-time position on the faculty of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, and will spend more time with his family (his wife, Karen Dreyfus, a violist, is also joining the Thornton faculty, and many of his four children, two grandchildren, and other relatives are based in California). Of course, he will continue to perform, and will return at least once a month to New York City to carry out his duties as chairman of the Orchestral Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music.

Fortunately, before he steps down from his duties as the Philharmonic’s Concertmaster at the end of the 2013–14 season, the eminent violinist has plenty to occupy him at Avery Fisher Hall.

To begin with, there are his duties as Concertmaster, perhaps the most prominent member of an orchestra. Not only is the concertmaster the leader of the first violin section and responsible for the entire string section, including selecting its bowing and phrasing, the role, Mr. Dicterow explains, “is also considered the liaison between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra.” The key to excelling? “I think it is basically human relations — being sensitive to your colleagues and being able to get along.”

The Philharmonic, which traces its history to 1842, is seeing out its longestserving Concertmaster with a bang. Four programs spread throughout the season put Mr. Dicterow squarely in the spotlight, where he’ll performs four of his concertmaster solos on the Philharmonic’s Guarnerius del Gesù violin. First up, this month, is Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, not to mention the famous violin solos from the same composer’s Don Juan (which is played in all orchestral auditions), led by Alan Gilbert, November 14–16 and 19. On the horizon are Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, December 12–14 and Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, led by Andrey Boreyko, January 22–25. In the fi nal subscription program, June 24–28, Mr. Dicterow takes on a true concerto, although, true to this great musical collaborator, one that also has a chamber music touch: his fi rst Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, alongside the Orchestra’s Principal Cello, Carter Brey, and the pianist Yefi m Bronfman, this season’s Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, again with the Music Director conducting.

Why these works? Mr. Dicterow replies: “Alan asked me what I really loved to play.” The violinist feels these compositions “all present their own unique challenges in their own individual ways,” and that the concertmaster’s challenge “is to prepare yourself psychologically when you’re part of a team, and then, all of a sudden you’re a star.”

The Tchaikovsky Suite carries special meaning because it was a favorite of Mr. Dicterow’s father, Harold, principal second violin of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 52 years. “He would stroll around the house practicing it,” Glenn Dicterow recalls, “so the theme was in my ear as a small child. I knew it before I had to learn it as a concertmaster because it has such a moving and touching theme.”

Despite this familiarity, and having played Ein Heldenleben more than 40 times, even superstar concertmasters have their little rituals. “If I’m playing solo, most definitely,” Mr. Dicterow says. “A short nap, a small meal of tuna, and a banana for potassium. It helps with concentrating and relaxing.”

But his distinguished career is one that very nearly didn’t happen. Born in Los Angeles, he took up the violin at the age of eight, which he characterizes as “very late.” In fact, his father discouraged him and his older brother, Maurice, from the idea of following in his footsteps. “He didn’t feel the profession led to much stability,” Mr. Dicterow recalls. “Back then a major orchestra’s season was 28 to 30 weeks. He wanted us to have a better life and probably didn’t want us to be confined to a room to practice four hours a day.”

However, Glenn Dicterow’s mother, Irina, a concert pianist who essentially gave up her career to rear her boys, “saw a spark of talent in both of us, and she won him over,” Mr. Dicterow says. Maurice grew up to become a physician and violinist who numbers many Los Angeles musicians among his patients. As for Glenn, he made his solo debut at age 11, performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At 18, he made his New York Philharmonic debut in a concert conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. The graduate of The Juilliard School was serving as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when he was invited to sit in as guest concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic in January 1980. Now, decades later, Matthew VanBesien, the Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, sums it up: “Glenn’s musicality and professionalism have established the definition of the ideal modern concertmaster.”

*

Lawrence van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to wQXr; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.




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