In America’s Concertmasters, Anne Mischakoff Heiles presents the reader with in-depth, informative, and at times entertaining glimpses into the lives, passions, and philosophies of the concertmasters of twelve major North American orchestras. The daughter of Mischa Mischakoff, the concertmaster of the Chicago, Detroit, and NBC symphonies, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Symphony Society, Heiles has a self-acknowledged reverence for the concert-master position and the men and women who have held it, which reveals itself in subjective statements such as “Instead of hardnosed cynicism, Dicterow has disarming charm” (377) and, in speaking of Joseph Silverstein, “A more tactful concertmaster cannot be found” (62). The 564-page tome, however, is not simply an enthusiastic espousal of the position Heiles’ father held for so many years, but is also a well-researched, exhaustively cited, and ultimately readable history of one of the most prominent positions in the classical music world.
Heiles organizes her study alphabetically by orchestra, focusing on the ten major symphonic orchestras, plus the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the summertime Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Within each chapter, she carefully studies and researches past concertmasters, delving into such details as their upbringing, their instruments, and the concertos they performed with their home orchestras. She recounts stories of hirings, firings, and immigration. The author maintains a readable style; some of the more detailed information is often housed in tables, making it easy to reference at a later date.
Each chapter also includes lengthy accounts of recent and current concert-masters who have participated in interviews with Heiles. In her prologue, the author previews the “skeletal” questions she posed to the interviewees, offering the reader a clear idea of what information to seek in each chapter. Questions such as “When and how do you gesture physically to lead the violin section?” (4) generate helpful hints such as Silverstein’s explanation that “If I wanted to change a bowing in the middle of the rehearsal, I would raise my bow in the air and make a couple of circles with it and move the fiddle way up. The [section players] could see that I was making a change and mark it, without the orchestra losing continuity by having to stop” (61). Her question about favorite concertmaster solos yields several discussions about the psychology of emerging as an orchestral soloist versus leading in a section passage, as well as harrowing accounts of missed notes and broken strings. Inquiries about the perks of the job often lead to conversations about family stability and consistent teaching schedules. In addition, many of the interviews offer compelling tales of intrigue, politics, and scandal. It comes as no surprise that some of the most amusing tales are found in the chapters covering the Chicago Symphony, with legends of Fritz Reiner, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with stories of multiple conductors, collapsed singers, and even murdered violinists. Heiles’ personal interviews are particularly engaging because, rather than the standard question-and-answer format, she allows the conversation to evolve and subsequently edits each interview into the format of a story. Although this does cause some [End Page 107] repetition of material and back-tracking of chronology, it creates a riveting collection of narratives.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Heiles’ study is that it creates a unique picture of the overall history of the American orchestra, with each chapter serving as a minihistory of the orchestra as it relates to the concertmaster. For example, the discussion of the concertmaster turnover in the Chicago Symphony versus the longevity of the position in the Boston Symphony provides insight into the politics of the conductors, the managers, and the cities. The story of each concertmaster becomes the story of the American orchestra and the American musician. Each interviewed and researched concertmaster reflects the lives of all of the musicians of his or her day—musicians who trained in American conservatories, rose slowly through the ranks, appeared larger-than-life on the scene as youngsters, became conductors, experienced burnout, immigrated with only their violins, dealt with management issues, or survived the Holocaust.
Heiles’ organization, her thoughtful interview questions, and the well-researched and cited historical sections create a book that would interest a variety of music professionals. While well over 500 pages, it is by no means an exhaustive study. Noticeably missing is a discussion of the rich network of regional orchestras in this country. In addition, there is little said about the struggles of working with an inexperienced assistant or associate conductor where the concertmaster conceivably could, in such situations, function as teacher, nurturer, public speaker, preschool educator, and sometimes even as de facto conductor. Despite these exclusions, Heiles’ book proves a useful study for the young concertmaster or concertmaster-to-be, a difficult position to teach because of the many approaches to leadership and the number of solutions to the minute problems that arise in an orchestra. Furthermore, violinists and other section leaders could garner useful information on approaching orchestral solos, dealing with ornery conductors, leading peers, and staying physically healthy in a demanding environment.
America’s Concertmasters, however, is also invaluable to the conductor or conducting student. It becomes a practical guide to leading while working with the concertmaster, a true partner. The anecdotes provided by the concertmasters are eye-opening with respect to what the orchestra needs, wants, and tolerates from a conductor; and each interviewee offers insight into the relationship between conductor and first chair violin, and how each can help the other. Finally, because Heiles keeps minutiae in tables, footnotes, and thorough appendices, and approaches the interviews conversationally, this is an excellent book for a nonprofessional music lover. Although the casual writing style of the interviews creates lack of concision, which at times bleeds into the historical sections, America’s Concertmasters is wholly entertaining and a good read. [End Page 108]