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February 14, 2014IM -
Glenn Dicterow lists Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, and Nathan Milstein as some of his favorite violinists. They aren’t unusual choices, but what’s different is Dicterow’s reason for picking them. He doesn’t cite these master violinists’ technique, tone, or musicality—though those things undoubtedly factor in. What he admires most is their combination of humility and ambition. “They knew they could get better,” he says. “Of course, when you hear them, you can’t imagine them sounding any better, but they continued to grow as artists.”
For this reason, Dicterow—who has served as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 32 years and maintains an active solo career—doesn’t let himself forget that there’s always room for improvement. “You can never sit back. That’s what’s so difficult about the concertmaster position. You’re not being compared to others, you’re being compared to yourself,” says the Local 802 (New York City) member. “I’m not a spring chicken, so for someone to tell me that I seem to be getting better, that’s the biggest compliment.”
Dicterow explains that “doing a little bit of everything” in his music career has kept him on his toes. He teaches at the The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music; is a founding member of the Lyric Piano Quartet; and appears on recordings of everything from Corigliano and Bernstein, to Disney movie soundtracks. Next season, his solo touring schedule will take him across the US and to China, and like every season, he’ll be a featured soloist in a New York Philharmonic concert—this time with the rarely performed Brahms Double Concerto.
“Outside soloists often choose the more standard repertoire, so I look for more obscure pieces,” Dicterow explains, also citing his recent undertaking of Bartok’s Concerto No. 1 and works by Korngold, Husa, Rosza, and Kernis. “As concertmaster, you’re designated to play more offbeat things. You have to be creative.”
His creative approach to programming seems to be reflective of the New York Philharmonic as a whole. The orchestra is performing more contemporary music under Music Director Alan Gilbert and holding concerts at innovative venues, like the Park Avenue Armory. Dicterow feels the philharmonic has the right approach. “We need to change with the times, but not abandon traditions. The great music is still the great music, whether it was composed by Vivaldi or Stravinsky. That kind of stuff will live on forever,” he explains. “We have our challenges ahead of us, but we need to roll with the times and bring attention to what orchestras do.”
With these challenges, Dicterow is grateful to have the AFM to guide him and his colleagues. “When negotiating, we rely deeply on the AFM’s advice, support, and legal council. The union has been amazingly supportive over the years, and without it, we wouldn’t be as strong,” he says. “We have to stick together. That’s really important.”
Dicterow first joined the AFM in 1971, when he accepted the associate concertmaster position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Remarkably, he had no prior orchestral playing experience.
Raised in Los Angeles, Dicterow had grown up around the LA Phil—his father was principal second violin, and he gave his debut solo performance with the orchestra at age 11—but in his four years at Juilliard studying with legendary teacher Ivan Galamian, he was trained exclusively as a soloist and was exempted from playing in orchestra. After graduation, he moved back to LA to launch his solo career, but before long, he got a call from Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Zubin Mehta.
“Zubin said, ‘You know, we’re going through the audition process for the position of associate concertmaster, and I was wondering if you’d like to give it a try,’” Dicterow remembers. As a newlywed with a baby on the way, he was attracted to the steady income that an orchestral position would provide, so he took the audition and soon found himself playing in an orchestra for the first time, alongside his father.
The learning curve was especially steep due to Mehta’s somewhat unpredictable conducting style. “He would interpret every performance a little bit differently, so you basically had to memorize the chart in order to see what he was going to do next,” Dicterow says. He proved able to rise to the challenge and even won the concertmaster seat when it opened a few years later.
Dicterow had been with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly a decade before he decided to step down and pursue his solo career full time. But within a year, Zubin Mehta—who by that time was music director of the New York Philharmonic—stepped in and changed the course of his life once again. The philharmonic was seeking a new concertmaster, and again, Mehta thought of Dicterow. With his children in Los Angeles, Dicterow was hesitant, but Mehta convinced him to come to New York for a month-long trial. At the end of the month, the job was his to take, and Dicterow was hooked.
Thirty-two years later, he is still honored to be part of the legendary orchestra. “The New York Philharmonic is, to me, the greatest orchestra,” says Dicterow, who has seen its transformations with each of the four music directors he has worked under: Mehta (“a heroic, exciting sound”), Kurt Masur (“a more European sound”), Lorin Maazel (“many sounds, depending on what he was conducting”), and Alan Gilbert (“a very clean sound”). “Just to be a part of it, I feel so honored,” Dicterow says.
With his great love for the orchestra and the admiration of his colleagues, it came as a shock when he announced in the spring that he would be leaving the New York Philharmonic after the 2013-2014 season. “[Gilbert] said, ‘Are you kidding? You’re doing this when you’re at the top of your game?’” Dicterow recalls.
What enticed him was a newly created teaching position, the Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music, at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. His wife, violist Karen Dreyfus of Local 802, was also offered a position at USC, so it was an opportunity that was hard to pass up, even though it meant retiring from the philharmonic a few years earlier than he had planned.
Once Dicterow returns to his native Los Angeles, he plans to finally slow down his hectic pace—at least a little. He’ll teach nearly full time, but his schedule will be flexible enough to allow for solo engagements and even trips back to New York, where he’ll keep up his relationship with the philharmonic by teaching masterclasses and playing in chamber music concerts. “It’s time to explore a new chapter and enjoy this part of my life a little more freely,” Dicterow says.
But his current chapter isn’t over quite yet: He still has two full seasons ahead of him as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. As he was recently reminded by Zubin Mehta, this means quite a few concerts left to go. “When I called Zubin to let him know about my decision to step down in two years, he said, ‘Two years? You’ve got at least 600 concerts to go! Why are you calling me now? Let’s talk later!’” Dicterow laughs.
Those remaining concerts will keep him busy up until the very end: Gilbert plans to honor the outgoing concertmaster in the 2013-2014 season by programming plenty of works with big violin solos, in addition to featuring him in the Beethoven Triple Concerto and a recital. “It’s a slew of hard work,” Dicterow says, “but I’m flattered that they want to do that for me.”
Although he is looking forward to the next phase of his career, it will be difficult to leave the New York Philharmonic after what will, by then, be 34 years. “First of all, I’ll miss my colleagues,” he says. “And I’ll miss playing the phenomenal music that you don’t get to play as a soloist, like Beethoven and Mahler symphonies. There’s something about being in the middle of such a grand sound—it’s something that can’t be duplicated in the audience.”
Dicterow remembers years ago, sitting next to former Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster David Frisina as he played his final concert, and seeing tears stream down his face. When asked if he expects the same for himself at his own final concert in two years, Dicterow answers, without hesitation, “I’m already prepared for it.”