New York City can be a high-pressure, high-risk town, and not just in City Hall or on Wall Street. Look at the Yankees, who consume managers like bags of peanuts. Even the New York Philharmonic has chewed up its share of leaders: In the last two decades, no fewer than six violinists have served as concertmaster, creating an orchestral version of musical chairs.
Until Glenn Dicterow.
Since Joseph Corigliano left in 1966 after 23 years, the violinist boasts, "I hold the record (as concertmaster). Six years."
Dicterow, 37, can also take pride in being named soloist as his colleagues and their celebrated conductor laureate, Leonard Bernstein, make a 10-day tour this month--including an engagement at UCLA, their first local appearance together in nearly a quarter-century. Dicterow will play Bernstein's Serenade tonight and Saturday in Royce Hall.
It is apparently no coincidence that first-desk fiddlers have had short careers in New York. "The orchestra does have a reputation of being a concertmaster-killer, as well as a conductor-killer," Dicterow admits during a conversation from his home in New York. The reasons center not so much on any murderous streak in the Philharmonic but on intense internal and external pressures.
"So many of the players in the orchestra are soloists--or of soloist caliber. The standards are very high and, of course, there's a lot of ego involved. The position is so important. I'm in charge of the string section.
"It's a difficult thing to figure, though. Maybe things just don't click (with a certain concertmaster)." His predecessor, Rodney Friend, quit abruptly in mid-season and returned to England.
Also weighing heavily on the players is outside competition: "New Yorkers hear so many great visiting orchestras, and that only increases the pressure on us."
Dicterow can only guess at the reasons for his own success in New York: "I feel that the players there already respected me as a musician when I arrived. I let them know that I like getting input from them. There's so much experience in this orchestra. Often they've been known to talk up to a conductor during rehearsals, and I don't discourage that."
Beyond his diplomatic skills, the native Angeleno cites his "good orchestral experience" when he arrived--a reference to his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, who took over in New York in 1978.
Still, he recalls, "when Zubin called me in December of '79 and invited me to be concertmaster for the month of January, I knew I had to prove myself."
Mehta's offer could not have come at a better time. Earlier that year Dicterow had resigned his Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster position. "I had some differences with (then music director Carlo Maria) Giulini. He wanted to establish co-concertmasters, which called for the splitting of duties. I didn't go for that."
Since, as Dicterow puts it, he "grew up being in an orchestra" with Mehta (he became associate concertmaster here at age 23), serving under him once again is a special pleasure. Mehta, he adds, "is one of the most inspiring conductors to work with--along with Bernstein."
Of the latter, Dicterow notes with a chuckle that each rehearsal begins with "30 minutes of hugging and kissing. Lenny's worked many years with a lot of people in that band.
"As a conductor, he is unique--he's not afraid to stretch a phrase. He still has that special magic."
The violinist also gives high marks to Bernstein the composer. "I can't believe the Serenade hasn't been played to death. I think it's one of the best violin pieces written in the last few decades."
While he enjoys the occasional foray into the spotlight, Dicterow shows no interest in pursuing a solo career.
"I had a couple of moments a few years ago when I said, 'Hey, let's give it a shot.' But the arrangement I have in New York allows me the liberty of playing as many as seven or eight weeks of solo engagements during the regular season.
"I like having that sense of security."