By Brian Wise
During Benjamin Bowman’s trial season (2017–18) as concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, he quickly had to adjust to the fact that he would be sharing his role with another concertmaster: David Chan, an 18-year veteran in the ensemble. A role that in most American orchestras would stand as a first among equals—and one rung below the conductor—is split two ways at the Met, like a sports team with co-captains.
“I saw (and felt) the necessity of this two-leader system immediately,” Bowman said in an email, using the European term for the position. The 38-year-old violinist had served as concertmaster of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra since 2014, and previously was the associate concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.
“Not only are the hours long and late with opera (also often followed by early rehearsals), but so are the physical and mental demands on a leader. Sharing the role means that we can get some relief—either by sharing a repertory piece, such as La Bohème, or by playing as exclusive leader for a specific opera, and taking another completely off as a result.”
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin made what could be one of his most critical decisions at the Met when, in February, he invited Bowman to lunch and offered him the permanent job. Bowman, a fellow Canadian, starts this September, succeeding Nikki Chooi, who held the post for a one-year term. The changing of the guard comes after a turbulent year at the Met, which saw music director James Levine fired amid sexual misconduct accusations and Nézet-Séguin’s start date moved up by two years. Bowman will have to bring the enthusiasm of a cheerleader and the discretion of a statesman.
Wen Qian, a first violinist in the Met Orchestra, praises Bowman’s “positive energy” and preparedness in performances. “He is a natural leader, and his body movement is very easy to follow,” she says. “I am also glad that he has a very easygoing personality, warm and sincere.”
“While American orchestras have a top-down leadership structure, in Germany, the approach suggests that of a parliamentary democracy.”
At a time when symphony orchestras are criticized for their rigidities, Bowman’s appointment raises questions, both practical and philosophical: Would more North American orchestras benefit from having multiple concertmasters, as it’s practiced in much of Europe, South America, and parts of Asia? And does a multiple-headed section make for a more flexible, inspired, and democratic one?
“It would be just impossible to be the only leader,” says Vasko Vassilev, who shares the concertmaster role at London’s Royal Opera House with Peter Manning. “We have performances six times a week. The schedule is killing. There’s no way to do it physically. You’d be totally dead.”
Opera musicians are not alone in this view. Noah Bendix-Balgley left his job as the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to become one of three full-time concertmasters of the Berlin Philharmonic. “We are playing over 30 subscription weeks a year in Berlin, in addition to pretty substantial touring, and that’s a lot of challenging programs,” he says. “For one person to do that would be a huge undertaking.”
Most of the sections in the 129-member, self-governed Berlin Philharmonic have multiple first-chair players and Bendix-Balgley says many members perform in chamber ensembles or as soloists. While American orchestras have a top-down leadership structure, in Germany, the approach suggests that of a parliamentary democracy, with a greater emphasis on coalition-building and a mix of disparate voices. (The entire orchestra sits in on a personnel audition, not just the section with the vacancy.)
Bendix-Balgley recalls how when he started in Pittsburgh, he immediately re-notated the bowings in the core repertoire. “Here in Berlin, I would always think twice about just putting my ideas in a piece that we play a lot because there will be different people reading it over the course of different seasons,” he said. “I try to stick with more of the way the orchestra has traditionally played it and make only changes if necessary.”
Not everyone senses a need for multiple concertmasters. “One reason why it’s uncommon is that, from a practical perspective, it just doesn’t work that great,” says Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant who writes the blog Adaptistration. “Orchestra sections need single leaders to develop the sort of tight unity needed to really make a section more than the sum of its parts. Two leaders of equal (or near equal) status work against that goal.”
Among top European ensembles, the Zurich Opera Orchestra lists a whopping six co-concertmasters on its website. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra indicates three, the Vienna Philharmonic three, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra each have two. In the United States, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra stands largely apart, with concertmaster duties divided between Nathan Olson and Alexander Kerr. (The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years each had co-concertmasters but now a single violinist holds the role, supported by associate and assistant concertmasters.)
Regardless of how many concertmasters populate an ensemble, they occupy a rarefied realm. A concertmaster generally makes at least twice union scale—more than any other player (and over $500,000 in a handful of cities). At the Met, concertmasters are chosen not through screened auditions but by a music director appointment. (Bowman was invited to audition for Nézet-Séguin “based on reputation and résumé,” said a Met spokesman.) And concertmasters are both executive and foreman: representing a section while conveying the ideas of a conductor.
How multiple concertmasters divide up a season’s programming is a somewhat opaque process. When there are two or more leaders, the senior player may enjoy first dibs, particularly when a plum solo is on the calendar, as when the Met performed Jules Massenet’s Thaïs in 2008 and David Chan took an onstage bow for his solo in the “Meditation.” But there are other factors.
“David has been doing this for a long time, so I’m really just following his lead on this complicated process,” Bowman told me. “We obviously both have specific operas we would like to lead, but mostly it comes down to how evenly the schedule will be distributed. The primary focus seems to be ensuring that neither leader carries too large or too little of a load for any period of time.”
A similar division of labor occurs in Berlin. “With big solos and things like that, we see who is free and who wants to do it,” says Bendix-Balgley. “With things like Scheherazade and Ein Heldenleben, the big solos come up often enough that if I’m not playing it this year I’ll probably have the chance in a couple of seasons. We’re able to share the goods, so to speak.”
In a 2017 analysis of the concertmaster role in Brazil, Timothy David Jones, a violinist, notes how a two-concertmaster format enables the more outspoken violinist to take on a more managerial role, attending administrative meetings and board functions. “There’s one concertmaster sometimes who is the one who steers, who commands, and there’s one who plays,” Brazilian violinist Telmo Jaconi tells Jones. “But he doesn’t open his mouth.”
An analogy might exist in professional basketball. When Michael Jordan was on the ascent in the early 1990s, his coach on the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, named center Bill Cartwright as co-captain with Jordan. While Jordan was famously demonstrative and congenial, Cartwright was seen as remote, and someone who earned the players’ respect more than that of the fans. It wasn’t necessarily a happy relationship but a savvy one, aimed at uniting all parties.
Most of all, Bowman sees his co-concertmaster as a sympathetic voice in what could otherwise be an isolating role.
“Given the high-stress environment in which we work and the constantly oscillating stream of repertoire and conductors and singers,” he says, “it’s really a gift to have another concertmaster onboard. It’s a colleague who can fully understand what it’s like to sit in the hot seat, and who can shed a different light on familiar scenarios.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.