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Transmitting the musical wishes of 200 conductors over 6,033 performances, Glenn Dicterow was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1980 until 2014. An alumnus and student of Ivan Galamian at the Juilliard School, he now teaches at USC where he holds the Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music. Below is the transcript of our February 24, 2015 conversation with violinist Glenn Dicterow.
EH: You have early ties to the West Coast and the city of San Francisco. Did you know Michael Tilson Thomas in those years ?
Dicterow: Yes, I spent a lot of my growing up there. I’ve known Michael Tilson Thomas since he was a kid. He is an amazing conductor, brilliant – in the mold of a Lenny Bernstein - and what he does in San Francisco is just terrific. He is the man for that job. You’re very lucky to have somebody like that in your city.
As a teenager, I used to commute up to San Francisco to study with the great Naoum Blinder, my father’s teacher and Isaac Stern’s. I would go to his house and take a lesson. I was one of the very lucky ones. To study with that man was such an inspiration. I would come up every two weeks, as a teenager, and stay with my aunt and uncle, who lived on Parker avenue, across from the college, right between Geary and Turk. So because of them, and my cousins, I know the city quite well. It really is my second hometown, like New York. I love both those cities. Of course, I love walking around the Embarcadero, little Italy, Pacific Heights, walking to Golden Gate -- that really is the most beautiful vision I’ve seen in the whole world. I don’t care where. Nothing more beautiful than your city.
EH: The search is on for Alan Gilbert’s successor. In your opinion, what must the new conductor bring to the city and its premiere orchestra, to push it in the proper direction ? Do you have any idea who the successor might be ?
Dicterow: I really don’t. I’ve not been privy to a lot of the happenings. Everybody wants everything in one person - a music director who does contemporary music better than anybody else, or Beethoven better than anybody else. Everybody wants that, but it doesn’t exist. Certain music directors bring certain talents and proclivities to the podium, and you’re not going to get everything wrapped up in one. I think that’s important to know, and certainly for New York.
As far as contemporary music is concerned, New York has been sort of the frontrunner of orchestras that has pushed the envelope. Alan’s done a tremendous amount for that, yet the subscribers want their meat and potatoes, too; they want to hear their Dvořák New World and Beethoven Fifth every season. Of course, you want somebody who is able to do that fantastically well. The people of New York are exposed not only to the New York Philharmonic but to all the visiting orchestras that appear at Carnegie, etc. You don’t really get that in, say, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, where there aren’t so many things to compare to.
New York is a very specialized orchestra, and the orchestra is a fantastic instrument. You need a very, very special conductor to handle all of that. I don’t think there’s any other orchestra that surpasses it in the whole world, and I say that honestly without being biased. I mean, you can do anything with it. With hardly any rehearsals, we can put together programs that are impossibly hard. It is an incredible instrument, and you need somebody they respect, someone who can communicate with the audience and the media. I think they have a couple of people in mind. They have a very challenging two years after Alan leaves. Without a hall, that span of two years, while they’re building, they have to find somebody to hold the whole thing together.
EH: You must be sick of this question, but beyond the specific bowings, what are some of the more surprising responsibilities the new concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic has to be made aware of ?
Dicterow: Well, it’s a mixed bag of so many different things, and to do it all well takes time. There are many wonderful violinists, but to do the job with dignity, ability, and to survive different music directors – that’s hard.
I basically learned that particular trade, that type of work - part diplomat, part conductor, part liaison – in Los Angeles in the 1970’s. I can’t say there wasn’t a learning curve at the beginning because I wasn’t groomed to be an orchestral player. You have to be a great communicator, you have to be humble - you can’t feel you’re better than anybody else – and you have to know, of course, your work, and be confident. But there’s so much more going on there, and you have to be completely open to suggestion, too. I think not everybody can become that. And, of course, New York is a very tough city (laughs).
EH: On the subject of difficulties, with respect to technique, one of the most neglected components of violin-playing is the right hand. Exercises for the left-hand, for scales, shifts, vibrato, etc. abound, but the right hand is often viewed as subsidiary. What are your personal views on the creation of a beautiful tone ?
Dicterow: What I can tell you is I think it has a lot to do with being exposed to the kind of fiddle players we don’t have anymore. Henryk Szeryng used to stay at our house on the West Coast when he was in town, and he would practice in front of me and give me lessons. And Kogan, too. We also had Heifetz in Los Angeles, and he basically wrote the book on how to play the fiddle, not just technically, of course. And I heard these giants, close-up.
My father studied with Gary Graffman’s father, who was a Leopold Auer student. So, of course, that’s a bit different from the Galamian school, which also produced a number of fiddlers. What I try to pass on to my students, though, is to try and mix it up with whatever we’re playing, to hold the bow a different way for different phrases - not just one way – and to have this big palette. I grew up with that goal in mind, of trying to create that very specific sound.
Technical wizardry only goes so far. Phrasing is where it’s at - that indelible musical impression you leave with the audience when they leave the hall. It’s all about sound. People will remember the brilliant technical passage for only a short while, but not a beautifully turned phrase. Maybe that’s why everybody loves Kreisler. He was not the greatest technician, but he was certainly one of the great phrase-makers. And what a sound he had!
EH: Charles Dutoit recently told us that levels of musicianship, with respect to the orchestra, have improved since the time of his youth. You, yourself, have said, “It’s a given that you’re supposed to play perfectly… maybe there’s a bit of the generic quality in music making… that’s just a product of the age we live in.” Has marketing played a detrimental role in the kinds of soloists or young superstars we now hear on stage ?
Dicterow: That’s a good question, and interesting that you notice, too. I come from an older generation where we didn’t have these things like YouTube and Spotify, being able at a moment’s notice to get thirty recordings of the Mendelssohn concerto and forty of the Bruch. People start listening like that, and pretty soon, it’s a recipe with too many ingredients. It just becomes generic.
In the days of the Milsteins, the Heifetz’, the Kreislers, they didn’t have all of this! They had these little records, if they were lucky enough. If somebody came to town, they would hear them, only once in a while. You were forced into this development style; you’d have to think outside the box – i.e. Oistrakh does it this way, and Szigeti does it another way. You have be inspired, but sometimes, I think maybe we’re a little over-inspired. Everybody imitates great people like Heifetz -- you can’t help it -- but it’s up to the individual to really think individually, to take it out of the box, and to make their own sound, to do something different. So, perhaps, the media has contributed to more generic-type playing than what I grew up with.
EH: Much of the violin repertoire is profound, glorious music-writing, both emotionally and philosophically. In your opinion, is there any truth to the idea that the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, answer and reflect upon the more serious questions about life ? To use Leon Fleisher's phrase, do they open greater “dimensions of meaningfulness” that the works of other composers miss ?
Dicterow: Well, of course I agree, but I also believe there are many other wonderful composers. There is, of course, great American music and tremendously great Russian music. I don’t discriminate. I adore Grieg, and Holst, for what he did. All of it is such phenomenal music. If I was asked one of those desert-island questions, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a good answer, because I would miss all of them. But if I had to settle, I’d have to go with Beethoven. Spiritually, and from the heart, there is so much there. Every year I live I discover more about him, and it’s just endless, infinite, what he was able to do.
EH: What are your thoughts on the future of the orchestral art form in America? How must we explain the importance of it to the next generation ? Do you have your own ideas of how to keep it alive ?
Dicterow: We have to keep it alive in the school system. And if we don’t do that, we’re actually aimed for failure. I remember in my elementary school - I was already playing the fiddle - we were sitting down, 4-6th grades, in an orchestra, small as it was, in the valley in North Hollywood. We were playing the Brahms Symphonies! That just doesn’t exist anymore, not even in private schools where you’re paying top dollar. That has totally gone away. If anybody learns about music these days, it’s usually Music Appreciation, where it’s too late to do anything. Students will take a year of it and listen to their pop music. Nothing wrong with pop music, but be exposed to these great composers, these great orchestras. It’s not just about sports, math and science. We need to push culture from an early age through the school system. The experiences are invaluable. Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, will always be alive. So it’s really about education. If they can do it in Venezuela, we can do it here.
EH: Mr. Dicterow, it was a pleasure and an honor speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time.
Dicterow: It was my pleasure, Elijah. Thank you!