First chair man: Role as concertmaster is but one note in virtuoso's busy score
By Mary Jo Heath
Greenwich Time, January 9, 2005
Violinist Krystof Witek is glad to be busy. For free-lance musicians like Witek, the hope is that life will be more feast than famine.
With work as concertmaster of the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra; as a well-established player in Broadway's pit orchestras,
where he is playing the "Lion King"; and as an active chamber musician, he is definitely feasting.
But there is never a moment to stop, the need to pursue the next engagement always looms. So where does Witek find time to
practice for his upcoming solo turn in Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1?
"I cleared my schedule a bit for this," Witek is quick to answer via phone from Calgary, where he is spending the holidays.
Witek will perform Bruch's popular concerto with the GSO and Maestro David Gilbert on Jan. 15 and 16 at Greenwich High School.
A native of Poland, Witek, 36, arrived in New York for his freshmen year at the Juilliard School and stayed through his bachelor's,
master's and doctorate degrees. Some musicians leave school as soon as possible, but Witek was compelled to stay. "My teacher,
Joseph Fuchs, was a true inspiration. He was in his late 80s when I met him, but still practicing and full of energy," Witek explains.
"He was changing and re-interpreting even at that age.
"It evolved into my career, Juilliard, living in New York City, and being a poor immigrant," he recalls. "I was drawn into it by an
economic factor and realized that I liked the variety of it."
With all those academic credentials, would he like the security of a university teaching job? "I like to keep all my cards on the table,
so free-lancing is fine now. It's a very stimulating environment and you stretch yourself. Maybe a teaching job later on," he notes.
Witek says that Bruch's first violin concerto is "a special piece. It fits in the line of incredible 19th-century violin concertos,
Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. The Bruch feels good in the fingers so violinists wanted to play it, that made it an
"It's not the standard form. He skips the big introduction and theme -- (you get) a tympani roll, a couple of winds, then the violin
starts. He thought of it as a fantasy -- a dreamy violin solo that goes through different ideas, then a large orchestral (section) -- almost
an interlude. The form is different -- it's interesting that way."
"The premiere (took place) in 1866, then for two years he worked with (violinist Joseph) Joachim to revise it," Witek explains.
"Then in 1868 the version that everybody plays came out. He was lucky to have Joachim help him rework it. Good that Bruch had
the humility to let Joachim help him with the piece. Shows he was open-minded and a smart guy."
He continues: "What I like is that with all the technical aspects, they are never in the foreground. It's always in the service of
beautiful and lyrical material."
Gilbert's theme for the concert is "Passing the Torch," a title that refers both to Witek's role and to the connection among the three
works that he has programmed. Witek, GSO concertmaster since the beginning of last season, makes his debut as a soloist with the
orchestra, an event that Gilbert views as the symbolic passing of the torch.
Getting a new concertmaster is, for the players, similar to getting a new boss, but one who is both colleague and leader. From the
audience view the concertmaster simply appears to be the first-chair violinist who tunes the orchestra before the conductor takes the
stage. The real work takes place behind the scenes and starts even before rehearsals begin. The concertmaster decides the bowings for
the violins, (sometimes for all the strings) so the players will all bow in unison, and often provides assistance during rehearsals in
demonstrating how certain phrases should be played.
Historically, before conductors were prevalent, the concertmaster led the orchestra from his chair with gestures and body language.
But leading by playing well remains the most important task, and a smooth transition with a new leader helps to maintain a high level
of playing from the ranks.
Regarding the music, Gilbert notes that the torch passes from work to work since "the whole program speaks of continuity of a
particular culture -- Beethoven to Brahms to Bruch. (It shows the) continuity of German musical culture, its particular romantic
approach and nineteenth century orchestral style."
The orchestra will begin the program with Beethoven's "Egmont Overture," part of the incidental music he wrote to accompany a
production of Goethe's play of the same name in Vienna during the 1810 season. The drama, set in Brussels, is loosely based on a
true story of a Flemish general caught in the web of the Spanish Inquisition.
The second half of the program consists of Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. With this piece, Brahms finished the page turn on
the symphony that Beethoven had begun. Beethoven's third symphony, the "Eroica," was revolutionary in its departure from the
familiar forms and musical language that had been refined to a high art by Haydn and Mozart.
Brahms's Symphony No. 1, often lovingly referred to as Beethoven's Tenth, continued the re-definition of the symphony as one
with a bolder use of form, larger orchestration and a more diverse harmonic language. Indeed Brahms felt the heat of Beethoven's
reputation and avoided the whole issue of writing symphonies for many years -- his first was finally completed after 20 years in the
making, in 1876, when the composer was 43.
The GSO will perform "Passing the Torch" on Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 16 at 4 p.m. at the auditorium of the Greenwich High
School, 10 Hillside Road, Greenwich. Associate Conductor Patricia Handy will present a preconcert lecture one hour before each
concert. Tickets cost $25, $10 for students and may be purchased at the door or by calling the GSO office at 869-2664.
Mary Jo Heath is an announcer on WQXR-FM in New York and WSHU-FM in Fairfield. She worked for the Philips Classics record
label for many years and holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the Eastman School of Music.
Copyright Â© 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
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