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Arts Desk

A Concertmaster's Experience Leading the Orchestra Without a Conductor

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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.

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