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Music Preview: Concertmaster's duties keep orchestra in beat

Thursday, February 10, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

Orchestras are usually considered a binary unit: players and conductors. But straddling both groups, providing leadership for the orchestra and assisting the conductor's efforts is the concertmaster.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Featuring: Andres Cardenes and Pinchas Zukerman.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 10:45 a.m. today; 8 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $14-$57; 412-392-4900.


It's a job that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Andres Cardenes cherishes. The 42-year-old, who has been concertmaster here since 1988, will run the gamut of his duties this weekend. He performs with violinist Pinchas Zukerman in Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, in a concert that he also helped prepare.

Many people know a concertmaster simply as the violinist who tunes the orchestra at the beginning of the concert. But that's like calling a quarterback the guy who just calls the plays in the huddle.

The concertmaster, the orchestra's principal first violinist, has many behind-the-scenes duties. His major responsibility is making the string sections run well so that the conductor can get right to the grander interpretations. In musical terms this means the often tedious work of deciding what bowings the strings should use.

"I want the group to be comfortable, to be able to come in and play it," says Cardenes. That means keeping sections bowing in the same direction and with as much ease as possible. He also must adapt to the many guest conductors who come to Heinz Hall each season. "I have to really be inside the guy's head before he gets here," he says. "I must know if they have quirks about certain kind of bowings. For instance, Jansons does not like modern bowings."

Proper bow work lays the foundation for a good performance; a bad mark can disrupt an entire orchestra as much as a conductor missing a beat. "Once in a while I make a mistake, and I find myself doing two up-bows," says Cardenes. "I'm always embarrassed: 'How did I miss that?' "

But he doesn't miss many.

The Cuban-born Cardenes' work ethic is a mixture of his personality -- "I am very stubborn, I am extremely driven" -- and his experience as a late-bloomer.

"I wasn't a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "I was plodding along and took a lot of baby steps and lumps in the early years." But this just incited his inner drive. "You start to cut out the things that are unnecessary, that aren't allowing you to progress quickly," he says. "You learn how to nip and tuck."

Soon enough, and with the support of violin teacher Josef Gingold, Cardenes was on his way to an admirable career which included concertmaster at the San Diego Symphony and Utah Symphony and solo and chamber music gigs.

The concertmaster position is actually called "leader" in England, and that describes another important duty. Cardenes speaks for the group, especially acting as an intermediary to the conductor, and has a strong influence in internal affairs. Although the concertmaster occasionally must "crack the whip," as Cardenes calls it, the largely amicable relationship between him and the group isn't without friction. "Anytime you're in a leadership role you are going to find yourself in hot water because some people are going to like what you did and others don't," he says.

"I don't really mind that there may be some difference of opinion. But if you set a standard of excellence and try to hold yourself to that all the time, then it's easier to ask people to do things." The most effective leadership at this position has always been by example.

There are a few practices that Cardenes does differently than many other concertmasters. "First of all, I don't like to walk out on stage [to applause before the conductor comes out]," says Cardenes. "We agreed long ago that I wouldn't do it -- it's too much of a show and too much of a distraction to me, the audience and the orchestra. All I am going to do is give the 'A'; it's not like I'm coming out to play a concerto."

After he has tuned the group, Cardenes also makes it a point not to sit down until everyone has finished tuning and is quiet. "I always feel the concert starts the instant we finish tuning," he says. "Once we start the concert, it should be absolutely quiet for the conductor to come out, to get the audience focused and ready to listen."

Another PSO concertmaster idiosyncrasy comes with Cardenes' responsibility to see if all latecomers are seated after the first pause of a concert. "It looks funny for the conductor to turn around 180 degrees to find out what's going on," Cardenes says. "So he always looks to me to let him know when everyone is seated and ready to go."

Then there's the performing side of the job. The concertmaster is responsible for all violin solos within a piece, since many works call for brief passages for single violin. The hard part is not playing the music, but transitioning out of blending with the ensemble. "When you have a solo, you have [to switch to] a whole other gear, a whole other attitude," says Cardenes. "You only do that for maybe 10 bars or something, and then you're back into the blend."

Most concertmasters also are established soloists, performing outside the confines of their own orchestra. "In the past, people always considered us frustrated soloists or people who didn't make it," says Cardenes. "The fact is some of the finest violin players in the world are concertmasters today."

That Cardenes is doing a good job with his myriad duties is reflected in his being signed to an eight-year contract in 1998. At that time, managing director Gideon Toeplitz summarized the importance of this position, saying Cardenes "has consistently proven himself to be a leader, committed to upholding the high standards that are the very essence of the Pittsburgh Symphony."

After all, there is more to it than giving that "A."

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