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A Concertmaster's Experience Leading the Orchestra Without a Conductor

David Kim is concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Today, a symphony orchestra is most often - but not always - led by a conductor.  As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, in some cases, the concertmaster may lead the group – but not from the conductor’s podium.

Radio Script:

Susan Lewis: When Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim has led the ensemble without a conductor, it’s been from his seat playing at the front of the first violins – sometimes perched on a riser to be more visible – or sometimes with everyone standing , as they did in the Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Kim says the tradition of a leader dates back centuries.

DK: Before pre-Baroque times, there were not big orchestras - they were actually small ensembles.

SL:  As orchestras grew bigger, and the music more complex, it became more important to have someone visible leading the group.

DK: Sometimes the composer himself would sit at the keyboard, and while improvising, he would also lead a little bit with facial expressions, sometimes by stomping his foot. Then we had a leader, which eventually became the concertmaster.

SL: When a conductor is on the podium, Kim helps to reinforce the conductor’s ideas.

DK:  I almost try to mimic what the conductor is showing with facial expressions. Tilt of head, with a big gesture with my bow. I am trying to do exactly what I think the conductor is trying to convey to the orchestra.

SL: When leading without a conductor, Kim says the interpretation starts with him, but the process is highly collaborative.

DK: And my colleagues have been extremely helpful, full of ideas, and I guess perhaps, most important, they’ve been encouraging to me.

This Sunday, April 12 at 1 pm on WRTI, David Kim leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert that includes Grieg’s Holberg Suite, as well as music by Mozart and Beethoven.

Listen to more of David Kim's conversation with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the evolution of the concertmaster role in a symphony orchestra.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.