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Winter-Spring 2001
Vol. 63, No. 2-3

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MASTERLY CONCERTMASTER

When the Metropolitan Opera opened its current season last fall, for the first time in 43 years Raymond Gniewek '53E wasn't sitting in the concertmaster's chair.

Gniewek was just 25 years old when he joined the orchestra in 1957 as its first American-born concertmaster. He was also its youngest member, an opera neophyte, and, basically, a would-be symphony player. When he retired at the close of the 1999- 2000 season, only three of his fellow orchestra members had been longer at the Met.

"After a few years here, I was hooked," he told the Review in a 1988 interview, when he'd been there only 31 years. "Now, in all honesty, the thought of playing in a symphony orchestra seems just a little boring."

A member of an opera orchestra performs unseen and, by many fans, essentially overlooked. But that ceased long ago to bother him. "Basically, it's like the movies. If the background music is really excellent, you don't even notice it," he said

The reward, he explained, lies simply in being part of an extravaganza unlike anything else in the performing arts-an amalgamation of voice, orchestra, acting, set design, lighting, costumes, and effects as dazzling in their way as anything Hollywood can do, all performed in large, "wedding cake" halls peopled with emotional audiences.

Opera is the stuff of drama, both on stage and off. Gniewek has seen a singer collapse and die during a performance. He has seen a fumbling performer replaced in the middle of an act (presumably, although Gniewek is too discreet to say so, because the singer was drunk). And he has seen the whole place shut down in mourning on the day of John Kennedy's funeral.

But mostly, in true show business tradition, the performance must and does go on-through "rain, snow, sleet, hail, and subway strikes," as he put it.

One important element in assuring that the show does go on smoothly night after night is the orchestra's concertmaster, the role Gniewek filled throughout his Metropolitan career.

Although concertmasters no longer are expected to leap to the podium should something happen to the conductor in mid-performance (orchestras have assistant conductors lined up for that eventuality), the modern concertmaster still fulfills an essential function.

As first violinist, the concertmaster is the most visible (and challenged) member of the orchestra-the acknowledged leader of the entire string section, generally responsible for its phrasing and bowing. In rehearsal, the concertmaster demonstrates the sounds the conductor wants. And, during performance, it is the concertmaster's instrument the other players listen for when the conductor is waiting on an unseen singer's response.

As New York Times music reviewer Anthony Tommasini wrote on the eve of Gniewek's retirement-with 115 different operas under his belt and with two new concertmasters on the roster as replacements-the veteran violinist "leaves with an incomparable understanding of operatic style and practice."

James Levine, the Met's artistic director, concurs. After four decades in opera, Levine told Tommasini, Gniewek's playing has acquired a special vocal quality. "It shimmers. It's lyrical. You can imagine putting a text to it immediately."

"The single luckiest thing that happened to me since I have been at the Met," Levine concluded, "is that Ray Gniewek was the concertmaster."

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