How did the roles of concertmaster and conductor evolve? Let’s take a trip through musical history. Early composers routinely performed their own works, usually playing the harpsichord and leading the orchestra from that seat, acting as “conductor” through the music. Orchestras were quite small, more like what would be called chamber orchestras today, making it easier to conduct and play.
Then, some composers came along who were also great violinists, and they began leading the orchestra from the position of first violin. As both the size of the orchestras and the complexity of the music grew, the role of a concertmaster evolved from conducting responsibilities to being a player-coach for the orchestra, while a separate role of conductor developed, no longer the music’s composer but an interpreter of classical works. Today, the concertmaster, almost always the first violinist, tunes the orchestra, plays solo passages and specifies how the violin parts should be played, and acts as a liaison between the conductor and musicians.
Sometimes, the concertmaster is called upon to lead the orchestra when a conductor is away or otherwise unavailable. While the concertmaster doesn’t stand on the podium and conduct in a traditional sense, he or she does guide the orchestra through the music. At our upcoming Beethoven Unleashed concert, you’ll experience this when our multi-talented Cape Symphony Concertmaster, Jae Cosmos Lee, leads the orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.
Jae is part of Boston’s own A Far Cry, a conductor-free chamber orchestra. Like many modern chamber orchestras, A Far Cry is a democracy in which decisions are made collectively and leadership rotates among the players (“Criers”). The group is wildly successful, with their most recent album, 2018’s A Far Cry’s Visions and Variations, receiving two GRAMMY nominations in the categories of Best Engineered Album (Classical) and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance (Classical). A Far Cry plays throughout the year in Boston and is the Chamber Orchestra in Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.