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July 2021 post “Programming”

June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

Audiences certainly do come to hear the orchestra which is billed to play the concert. However, most people, if we are honest, come to hear… “the soloist”!

Conductors and Boards of Directors work hard to locate talented soloists who match the performance level of the orchestra, who provide the kind of repertoire the audience (and orchestra) will enjoy, AND who are within the budget of the orchestra (that’s the hard part). Fortunately, in the greater Milwaukee area, we have many people who are extremely talented. They deserve to be showcased with an orchestra.

Conductor/Soloist Relationship

This article will be about what it is like for a conductor and an orchestra to work with the soloist.

To start, the orchestra really does not get to work a lot with the soloist. Typically, there is one rehearsal between soloist and orchestra, then the dress rehearsal, then the show. It falls to the conductor to have previously met with the soloist to know “how” the soloist would like the orchestra prepared. The conductor can then share these details (of which there typically are many) with the orchestra over several rehearsals (without the soloist). If all of this preparation has been done well, then the rehearsal with the soloist generally goes very well.

So what does the soloist tell the conductor when they meet? The most important issues have to do with getting the correct tempo for each part of the concerto, as well as understanding which parts of the solo part need special attention – be it with specific articulation, or “phrasing” (the manner in which one “shapes” the line of music, exactly like when an actor delivers a line of a play (and no two actors say the same words the same way)). Sometimes the soloist requests certain parts of the orchestral accompaniment to be highlighted.

It is the conductor’s job to follow the musical lead of the soloist, both at these rehearsals, but also in real-time in performance. The conductor also needs to make sure that the soloist and conductor are “in-sync” at all times. Occasionally, the conductor might need to explain a particular passage to the soloist, relating the complex manner in which the solo part and the orchestral accompaniment need to be coordinated. This requires some give-and-take. Some soloists are very in “tune” with what the orchestra is doing and are therefore very sensitive to what the conductor needs from the soloist in order to insure total union.

Sometimes, soloists are more focused on their own part and need some reminding about what all is going on around them. This is particularly true of young and especially first-time soloists. It is a great learning experience! It is one thing for a young artist to perform a concerto with a piano accompaniment (one person, who can change things “on a dime”), and another thing to perform with a full symphony orchestra!

And then, there are temperaments. Some soloists are very easy to work with, to relate to. Some soloists are more “high-strung” and temperamental. Conductors are required to deal with all types of people, to make the end product seamless and inspired. This is no small order.


Lastly, there is the issue of surprises. As I mentioned earlier, the conductor is expected to follow the musical lead of the soloist – including in “real-time” – in performance. But what if the soloist, spontaneously at the last moment, decides to do something differently than was discussed or rehearsed?? Has this ever happened??? Well… YES!!!  That is some of the fun and some of the fright of live performance. We are all human beings, and the creative act of performing music includes spontaneous inspiration.

Thus, the conductor walks a somewhat terrifying line: quite certain about how the soloist will interpret the piece while, on the other hand, always uncertain about whether, at a moment’s notice, things will change. Talented and very musical soloists possess the experience of working with conductors and orchestras, and know how to communicate their musical intentions to the conductor and orchestra, allowing the “music-making” to unfold with inspired ease. This is a great joy to experience. It would be as though you are riding with a professional race car driver, in whom you have complete trust, and the driver says “sit back, let me take you on an exciting ride – not to worry – you are in good hands”!

Sometimes the surprises are more serious, as when the soloist has a memory lapse. While this is rare, it does happen. Often, soloist and orchestra somewhat adeptly re-align without the audience knowing there ever was a problem. On rare occasions, the performance may need a re-start. In my entire career, I believe that happened to me only once. But this is LIVE performance, with real people, and anything can happen!

Next time you are at a concert with a soloist, you may now have a greater appreciation for how much detailed work has gone into making that performance as seamless as it was. You might observe more intently how the conductor and soloist “communicate” with each other as the piece progresses. Perhaps you might sense whether the orchestra is responding to the energy of the soloist or not. Perhaps you will observe the soloist as oblivious to the entire universe, except for their instrument and the orchestra which supports their musical story. You too may get “lost” in the musical moment, caught up in the magic of the soloist’s great talent and the splendor of the work being performed.

Musical Acrobats

Soloists are highly skilled musical acrobats. They display all sorts of wizardry with their instrument of choice. But when you get past the flurry of notes, the soloist, deep down, is telling you a story, an intricate story, filled with excitement, passion, pensiveness and curiosity. Sit back, and let the soloist (in whom you have complete trust) take YOU on an exciting ride, because … you know… you are “in good hands”!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.