Kay Stern, Concertmaster

What does a concertmaster do anyway? We asked our very own concertmaster, Kay Stern, to give us her perspective on the job.

Each opera begins with hours of preparation, even if Kay has played it before. She studies the text and how the music illustrates and adds information to the singer’s lines. Then comes the bowing process. If you look into the pit, you’ll notice that often times all violin, viola, cello and bass bows are moving in the same direction. This can serve the visual purpose of looking coordinated to the audience and it can create great musical gestures, moods and punctuation. We are sometimes in the pit over seven hours a day playing different operas. As Kay marks each part with bowings, she not only considers what will render a dramatic punch but also allow the most physical ease for her section.

She bows her part months in advance of the first rehearsal so that the other string section leaders can look at what she will do and our librarians can copy Kay’s bowings into all other violin 1 parts. Then the rest of us sign out practice parts from the library and prepare for the first rehearsal.

We often rehearse and perform three different operas simultaneously so in addition to many hours of in-pit time, individual practice hours must continue outside of work. At the start of each rehearsal or performance, Kay stands and the oboe gives a tuning “A”. Different sections of the orchestra tune individually then we wait for the conductor. In a performance, Kay leads the orchestra to stand as he (or she) walks to the podium and they shake hands. This is a courteous gesture of welcome to the conductor from the orchestra and a gesture of thanks from the conductor to the concertmaster.

It is the concertmaster’s job to facilitate communication between orchestra and conductor. Kay does her best to follow what the conductor shows and relay it not only to her section but to every other section across the orchestra. This takes a great balance of leadership and collaboration with her fellow musicians. Kay needs to be clear and concise, both in her musical gestures and with words. She is sometimes asked by the conductor to demonstrate a specific technique or character and occasionally she must diplomatically tell the conductor when an idea simply won’t work. It is the concertmaster’s responsibility to play all violin 1 solos composed in the score. Kay enjoys this aspect of the job – being a chamber player much of the time then suddenly soaring above the orchestra in a solo line.

There are always changes to be addressed and articulations to match as we work through an opera. It is not until after the orchestra has (hopefully) had many rehearsals that we even see the singers. They join us for the first time in a sitzprobe, sitting near the front of the stage so that attention can be focused on integrating singers and orchestra. The next step is staging rehearsals, when singers are blocking their parts on stage. They are expected to be off their scores and know what they’re doing on stage at every given moment. We are expected to have one eye on conductor, one eye on score, one ear to our colleagues and one ear to the stage. No matter how much rehearsal time we are allotted, changes may occur between rehearsals and performances, or even spontaneously in the middle of the sixth performance!

Kay likens the score to a huge puzzle in which all parts are spontaneously and hopefully synchronously moving. When the conductor is busy with the stage, Kay and other leaders make immediate decisions based on knowledge of the score and what they hear happening around them, then each section musician listens and follows so the puzzle pieces move simultaneously. The ultimate teamwork is acting together to make everyone sound great. When we succeed, this is chamber music in all its decadent glory.

Kay has been on a life-long search for the perfect musical partner (a violin!). As any string player will tell you, finding an instrument that suits all of one’s needs can be both challenging and expensive. It used to be that our retired colleagues were able to buy a very fine string instrument for the equivalent of one or two years salary. These days a violin can cost more than a San Francisco home! Many orchestras solicit patrons to buy instruments for the orchestra, “endowing” someone’s position or chair. Since instruments do go up in value (much more reliably than the stock market!) some orchestras use endowment money to invest in fine instruments, thereby investing in the sound and quality of the orchestra.

Although Kay was lucky enough to be loaned a few Stradivarius and Guarneri violins as a student and as the first violinist of the Lark Quartet, she is still devoted to finding herself the ideal instrument… one that can project in the opera house and provide the beautiful sound and quality that she hopes to promote for our string sound… one that can react to her variations in technique as she tries to create as many characters and nuances in her playing as the singers portray on stage.

Kay just returned from a visit to New York City where she and her daughter spent several days visiting violin shops and trying instruments. She and Shaleah enjoyed playing many violins, ranging from contemporary makers through the centuries to Stradivarius and Guarneri. During their free time in the city, Kay showed Shaleah the places she’d lived during her nine years as a NYC resident (numerous apartments because she’d always had to move out during the summer, unable to afford rent in the city while studying at the Aspen Music Festival !). They played chamber music with friends, explored various neighborhoods and even saw Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera!

Kay treasures the time spent with Shaleah, as she says her daughter is her favorite thing in the world. Shaleah is leaving for college in a few years and plans to follow a musical career path like her mom. They currently reside in Pacifica with two talented cats, brothers Lucky and Boo, who can fold themselves into perfect violin shapes. Kay says they are sweet but a little competitive about who will be the first to get into a violin case once the instrument is removed for practice.

Kay takes every opportunity to teach and perform. After her time in NYC with the Lark Quartet and before she came here, she taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Now she collaborates frequently with pianist Joan Nagano. They learn a new recital each year and play it several places. Kay often plays chamber music with members of our wonderful opera orchestra. They play for fundraisers, house concerts, and in chamber music series around the Bay Area. It means a lot to Kay to play for fundraisers, to inspire people to open up their hearts and checkbooks for important causes.

Recently she and opera cellist Emil Miland made a recording by Bay Area composer and SF Conservatory faculty member David Conte.

One of Kay’s most vivid opera-related memories outside the house was when she was a guest artist at the Summer Music Academy of the West. She was the concertmaster/artist in residence for the orchestra as they performed The Magic Flute. The students were from conservatories around the country. She guided them as they explored how to play the different arias using various bow strokes and lengths and variations in vibrato. They discussed how to play under the voices yet still sparkle and determined how the complex lines of orchestra and singers could immediately come together by figuring out who to listen to, who should lead, and when to just go with the stage. Some students were not excited by the prospect of playing in an opera orchestra, thinking it would be boring not to be the main focus, but Kay was thrilled to show them that the art of playing opera is so much more than simply accompanying the stage.