The hottest seat

My BBB Charles Noble wrote a good post the other day on the perils of being an assistant principal string player:

This morning, at the dress rehearsal for this weekend’s classical program, my principal had to leave midway through the rehearsal for personal reasons. It took place during the middle of the first movement of the Mozart piano concerto, and I just had to slide over to the first chair, the on-call player moved up, and we seamlessly went on as though nothing had happened. On our stage, however, the difference in sitting three or four feet downstage makes a huge difference in what you can see and/or hear. Suddenly I could see our concertmaster, but couldn’t hear the first stand of cellos very well, and I was suddenly face-to-face with our soloist (Angela Hewitt) down the length of the interior of the piano, which is always disconcerting to me.

Then, in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, there are quite a few divisi sections, where the inside player plays a separate line from the outside player, and it just might have been since I was in grad school that I had last played the top line in that piece! So, add in the fact that there is now a little bit of sight-reading put on my plate! And finally, there was the fact that I might have to play the treacherous solos in the Webern Passacaglia, Op. 1, without even having played a rehearsal, which did not make for a fun afternoon of practicing.

I made it through the rehearsal with only a slightly elevated stress profile, but playing in the hot seat reminded me of just how different the demands are on a principal string player than even his stand partner, not to mention the rest of the section. They earn their extra pay, hands down.

They sure do. I lost any desire to be assistant principal early in my career, when I spent much of the 1977-78 season as a sub with the San Francisco Symphony. During my time there I saw two harrowing instances of an assistant being catapulted into hot water.

The first was during a week we were doing the second Brahms piano concerto (with, I believe, Andre Watts) and the brand-new assistant principal cello, Peter Shelton (who had gotten the job just out of school and had only started a few weeks before) had to play the slow-movement solo on three hours notice, due to a collision between a thorn and the principal cellist’s thumb. Peter was a friend (we had played quartets at Stanford together) and I was almost as scared as he was.

The second was an afternoon performance involving the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante K. 364. Unfortunately the principal violist, Geraldine Walther, had been under the impression that it was an evening performance, so the assistant principal was asked if he could play the solo part. He very gamely agreed to so do, even though he hadn’t stood up and played a solo in a couple of decades, and went off into a corner to try to re-learn the piece in 20 minutes or so. Fortunately, management was able to contact Gerry and inform her that she was supposed to be playing a concerto that afternoon, and she duly showed up and did her usual wonderful job.

But the two incidents (which occurred within a few weeks of each other) convinced me that I never wanted to sit second chair. First chair is fine; at least one gets some practice at playing solos in public. And section is fine too; at least one never has to worry about playing solos. But assistant combines the worst features of both.

Having said that, I’ve never thought about the other problems with the position that Charles raises, having never before thought about the fact that I’m the only person in my section who never has to sit anywhere but in his/her assigned seat (although I have sat in the back on occasion if I come to work late or get called in if I’m on call and someone is sick). It’s a luxury that I’ve never sufficiently appreciated.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • This reminds me of a similar situation. Years ago
    I was sitting second stand (outside) in the viola section of “town and gown” orchestra. At the dress rehearsal, the principal and co-principal violists
    were indisposed. The music was the “Enigma Variations” which has, at least one, if not more, viola solos. I was in the “hot seat” Even though this was far from being a major orchestra, it had its share of (at least to me) important musicians. The principal players were my university professors, and if I remember correctly, the soloist for the evening was someone like Ivry Gitlis or Aaron Rosand. I prayed that the soloist was backstage out of hearing, but I knew that my teachers were in the room. It was not a time to mess up….and I hadn’t practiced the part. I think I got through it o.k. but it was an experience I didn’t want to repeat again in a hurry!

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