Violinist Andrew Wan Shares Tips on How to be a Great Concertmaster
"What makes an excellent concertmaster?" We threw the question over to long-serving Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Concertmaster, Andrew Wan.
As the violinist with the "highest rank," a concertmaster acts as second in command only to the conductor. In addition to tuning the orchestra and playing the violin solos, they have to set an excellent example for the rest of the orchestra. But are there practices that all concertmasters consistently do? Our read Anna was keen to know.
Andrew Wan shares his tips on being a concertmaster:
I have had the pleasure of occupying the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal's concertmaster chair over the past 12 seasons, a post I share with my wonderful colleague, Richard Roberts.
He is among several leaders I strive to emulate and learn from.
Here are a few more: Martin Riseley (ex-Edmonton Symphony Orchestra), who, during my teenage years, made a sizable impression on me with his consistently demonstrative and beautiful playing, Alex Kerr (ex-Concertgebouw now at the Dallas Symphony), for his sheer command of the instrument and his wise real-time decision-making, and Jonathan Crow (Toronto Symphony Orchestra, also a quartet-mate of mine), who is a terrific example of flexible and communicative playing.
The question posed is a challenging one to answer because I don’t believe there to be a codified series of steps that one must follow in order to be effective as a concertmaster.
We all know the responsibilities of the job with regard to generating bowings, serving as a liaison to conductors, other section leaders, and administration, playing the odd solo, etc., so I’ll move past this.
I view this particular chair as but one character in the orchestra, larger when necessary and smaller at other times. It’s worth noting that I find it to be a process that requires constant tweaking. I try to remind myself to admit that I may not always be correct (more on this later), but should consistently perform actions (sometimes that means inaction or less actions) that encourage others to play not merely with each other, but for each other, and obviously for the music. Concertmasters' decisions should vary for every unique ensemble, depending on rich tradition versus the natural evolution of style, the group’s particular personalities, the conductor’s artistic vision, and of course would take into account the joyous spontaneity of live art-making! Sometimes what I do in a particular phrase may work for the violin section during rehearsal but in fact, may be a hindrance come performance. That judicious malleability is essential in the role.
Despite the hierarchical setup of an orchestra, I find that the best leaders foster environments where others feel comfortable having an impact on the creative process.
Interpretations deepen with this type of involvement. It’s a tricky proposition, given limited rehearsal time, but sometimes that means embracing ideas I hear around me that aren’t as I had planned for. I probably could always get better at this!
Finally, to the point about having a mindset of accepting mistakes and being “wrong”: in my first year at the OSM, I called up the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, David Chan, and asked for advice over a burger before one of his shows. He left with me an invaluable thought I still come back to regularly. The reminder was that the job doesn’t require perfection – the discomfort of past and yet-to-come failures would be all too overwhelming – but instead, we ought to keep an internal scorecard of our average daily effort we put into making the experience of those around us positive.
That’s the job.
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A graduate of The Juilliard School, where he studied with Masao Kawasaki and Ron Copes, Andrew Wan has served as Concertmaster of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal since 2008. He is also Associate Professor of Violin at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, Artistic Director of the OSM Chamber Soloists, member of the Juno and Opus award-winning New Orford String Quartet (NOSQ), and serves on the Orford Music Academy faculty.