Donald Munro

Master musicians: Two concertmasters take the stage with Fresno Philharmonic

Noah Bendix-Balgley will perform with the Fresno Philharmonic Jan. 16-17.
Noah Bendix-Balgley will perform with the Fresno Philharmonic Jan. 16-17. Special to The Bee

Some job titles are obvious. Teachers, firefighters, skyscraper window washers – you don’t need an explanation of what these folks do for a living.

But concertmaster? That’s a different story.

Even veteran orchestra fans can be a little wobbly on exactly what someone in that position does. Most know that the concertmaster is the first violinist and that it’s traditional for him or her to walk onstage individually – to applause – after the rest of the players are seated. In terms of job duties, most know that before the program begins, the concertmaster asks the oboe to kick off the tuning process.

And it’s also traditional for the conductor to shake hands with the concertmaster immediately after the performance, also to applause.

So, other than getting lots of claps just for being there, what’s the story?

Noah Bendix-Balgley gets asked that question a lot.

“Here’s an analogy,” he says on the phone from Germany. “If you think of an orchestra as a basketball team, the conductor is the coach. He or she is deciding the whole game plan. The concertmaster is like the team captain. He or she is a leader among equals.”

With the violinist performing at the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Best of Brahms” concert, it seems a fine time to salute not one but two impressive concertmasters: one a guest soloist, the other a familiar Fresno face.

Bendix-Balgley, 31, rocketed to superstar status in the classical music world in 2014 when he won the audition to become one of three “first concertmasters” of the renowned Berlin Philharmonic, considered one of the world’s best orchestras.

For his Fresno appearance, he will wear his guest soloist hat, a common occurrence when he’s taking a break from his Berlin duties. (He will play the magnificent Brahms Violin Concerto, part of an all-Brahms program that includes the composer’s Symphony No. 1.)

The concertmaster will be Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio – a friend of his – who has held the Fresno position since 2010. She also brings an impressive pedigree to the position, having landed a spot in the famed Cleveland Orchestra at age 24, then reigning concertmaster at the San Antonio Symphony for 13 years.

We’ll get to know both concertmasters better in accompanying articles. For now, though, the question remains: What is is the “unseen” – to the audience, at least – part of the position?

First and foremost, he or she has to be a really good violinist.

Beyond that, it really comes down to communication.

The concertmaster acts both as a “second pair of ears” for the conductor, as Sant’Ambrogio puts it, and as a liaison between orchestra members and the conductors. In some ways, it’s like being a diplomat. Let’s say players are confused over what the conductor wants in a particular passage in terms of rhythm. The concertmaster would speak up and ask for clarification.

That doesn’t keep players from talking directly to the conductor about individual issues. It’s not that strict of a system. But sometimes it helps to have an official spokesperson, which is where good communication skills come in.

“You have to be a good people person,” Sant’Ambrogio says. “You also have to love the orchestra and love wanting to make it sound great.”

There are less tangible qualities needed in a good concertmaster as well: the ability to lead and inspire, to critique and encourage, and, perhaps most important, knowing when to speak out and when to defer to the vision of the conductor, who’s ultimately in charge.

“Being a concertmaster is about reaction and initiation,” Bendix-Balgley says. “That sometimes means asserting yourself musically and other times deferring to someone else.”

Beyond talking, concertmasters have duties that don’t have anything to do with words. The concertmaster marks the “bowings” in the score for the string players, adding uniformity (both in terms of visuals and musically) to the way all the bows look as they’re drawn across the strings.

And in performance, the concertmaster leads subtly with an almost choreographic quality – perhaps leaning in a fraction of a moment before a downbeat, using body language to communicate.

Sant’Ambrogio studied ballet and danced on pointe for five years when she was growing up. She knows how to move.

“Everyone in an orchestra interprets a conductor’s beat slightly differently,” she says. “You have to coordinate movements with the conductor and physically lead from the chair.”

So, now you know. The next time the concertmaster walks onstage before the program begins, you can clap with a little more feeling. There’s a lot more to the job than just shaking the conductor’s hand.

Fresno Philharmonic’s ‘Best of Brahms’

Concert preview

  • 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17
  • Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave.
  • www.fresnophil.org, 559-261-0600
  • $25-$79

NOAH BENDIX-BALGLEY

Title: First concertmaster, Berlin Philharmonic

How the job works: Because the Berlin orchestra is so large and busy, with 128 full-time members, it has three first concertmasters who rotate the position. Bendix-Balgley is the youngest and newest. This gives him time to work into his schedule solo appearances, chamber music and teaching, all of which are important to him.

Background: Born in Asheville, S.C., he began playing violin at age 4. His family moved to Berkeley for part of his childhood, where he attended the famed Crowden School. He graduated from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and the Munich Hochschule.

Honors: Laureate of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. Multiple prize winner at the 2008 Long-Thibaud International Competition in Paris. First prize winner at the 2011 Vibrarte International Music Competition in Paris. First prize and special prize winner for best Bach interpretation at the “Andrea Postacchini” Violin Competition in Fermo, Italy.

Did he always want to be a concertmaster? Not really, although by his early 20s, he realized he had the leadership qualities to make it happen.

Prior concertmaster experience: Concertmaster for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for five years.

How he ended up in Berlin: He won an extremely competitive audition. Beyond that, it’s the type of position that would be hard to turn down.

Why he’s a big deal: The Berlin orchestra is consistently ranked as one of the finest in the world. He is, simply put, a rock star in the classical music world. Even though he demurs from describing himself in those terms, he does say the principals in the orchestra are “well known” in Europe.

Why he likes being a concertmaster rather than a touring soloist: It really comes down to time and stability. Constantly traveling the world can be exhausting. This way he gets to have a solid home base yet plenty of time to schedule other performance and teaching opportunities. Plus, for him, music is about community. “I really can’t musically live without the interaction of playing with a group.”

STEPHANIE SANT’AMBROGIO

Title: Concertmaster, Fresno Philharmonic

How the job works: Sant’Ambrogio, who has been concertmaster since 2010, plays for the orchestra’s masterworks series. For the pops series (and times when she can’t make a masterworks concert), another orchestra member fills in. (The assistant concertmaster position is currently vacant.) When she’s not in Fresno, the Reno resident teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, and is artistic director of the Cactus Pear Music Festival in San Antonio.

Background: Her father is the highly regarded John Sant’Ambrogio, who was principal cellist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1968-2005, so you could say she comes from musical royalty. She began taking violin lessons from her father at age 5. She graduated from Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music.

Did she always want to be a concertmaster? As a child, not at all, because even though she’d met several concertmasters through her father, all of them were men. Later, her father encouraged her along that track, telling her, “You should be a concertmaster. Your body telegraphs the beat and feel of the music.”

Prior concertmaster experience: She kicked off her concertmaster career in Akron, Ohio, and then moved on to a 13-year-stint as concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony.

How she ended up with the Fresno position: Family, stability and teaching have always been high priorities for Sant’Ambrogio. When the San Antonio orchestra, where she was serving as concertmaster, ran into financial difficulties, she took a full-time teaching job in Reno. Later, because of the Reno connection with Maestro Theodore Kuchar (he is artistic director of the chamber musical festival there), she ended up with the Fresno gig.

Why she’s a big deal: Along with her Cleveland Orchestra and San Antonio experience, she has a discography of more than 75 orchestral and chamber music CDs. Fanfare magazine described her recent “Johannes Brahms: The Violin Sonatas CD,” as “play[ing] with immaculate technique, impeccable intonation, lustrous tone, and emotional warmth.”

Why she likes being a concertmaster rather than a touring soloist: The schedule is a lot easier. Although she landed a coveted position in the famed Cleveland Orchestra – a world-class group – at the tender age of 24, she left after a few years because she knew at some point she wanted to have children and not have to keep up with such a busy orchestra. She’s been able to spend time with her husband raising their two daughters, now ages 14 and 16. “I never thought I would be a soloist,” she says. “I always thought I would be a mom and a chamber musician.”

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