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Faces out of the crowd

The L.A. Philharmonic has been anointing more of its own principal and even rank-and-file players for a stressful honor: to serve as soloists.

March 23, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

It isn't usually very easy to find Ralph Sauer among the Los Angeles Philharmonic's musicians. When the full orchestra assembles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he's way in the back, four rows of violinists, cellists and others in front of him, and just the percussionists behind. Even his bright gold trombone is hardly visible.

That changes this week when he heads center stage for a Philharmonic concert program spotlighting orchestra members. Not only will Sauer play the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' "Canticle Weaving," commissioned for him, but Brahms' Double Concerto will be played by Philharmonic violinist Bing Wang and cellist Ben Hong.

Although orchestras often feature their own musicians as soloists, the number and range of musicians at the Philharmonic this season are unusual. In mid-January, for instance, English horn player Carolyn Hove played the world premiere of William Kraft's English Horn Concerto. In total, 10 of the season's 26 instrumental soloists are Philharmonic musicians.

Soloists have also been drawn not just from among the orchestra's principal players, but from its rank-and-file musicians as well. "One of the great strengths of this orchestra is the younger musicians who sometimes sit in the middle of a section," says Philharmonic executive director Deborah Borda. "At the start of a career, nothing tests you like playing a solo with a major orchestra."

Philharmonic musicians use words like "honor" and "privilege," but they also admit to stomach upsets and racked nerves. "I didn't want to let my colleagues down, and I didn't want to let myself down," recalls violinist Stacy Wetzel, who made her pavilion solo debut last fall in Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." "To stand up in front of a great orchestra, in front of a packed audience, is very stressful."

For the 10 to 12 minutes she and her three Philharmonic colleagues each played a solo, Wetzel estimates that she practiced three to four hours a day for a month. (Her husband, Minor Wetzel, a Philharmonic violist, picked up the slack with their three children, she notes.) "The last time I soloed was in 1999, playing a Beethoven concerto with a regional orchestra performing at a church. For a section player in the orchestra, a performance of this nature doesn't come along very often."

Think baseball, suggests trombonist Sauer. "Normally my job as an orchestra musician is more akin to a relief pitcher who doesn't play all that much. Sometimes, in a symphony by Brahms, I don't play at all until the ending. But being a soloist is more like being a starting pitcher: The pacing and endurance are totally different."

Sauer and others refer to that change as challenging, and that is exactly what their music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, says he had in mind. "For the players, it is great to have this challenge and be measured against professional and legendary soloists. It is stimulating and helps their artistic growth."

But the notion goes beyond player morale, he adds. "When we were planning the last season in the old hall, we tried to invent all kinds of things for the audience. The audience knows the people they see and hear every week are very good musicians but rarely hear them play solos. Now they can verify with their own ears something they were suspecting all along."


Assistant principal cellist Hong usually sits in the second seat of the front row, stage left, with associate concertmaster Wang across the way in the second seat of her row, mirror images on either side of the conductor's baton. This is Hong's second solo at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Wang's first, although both have also soloed with the orchestra in other venues.

"When you solo with a different orchestra, you're more of a guest," observes Hong. "I work with these people day in and day out -- it's like playing for a family. When we're featured as soloists, we feel the responsibility of representing the orchestra, and I think most of the players who have played solo with the orchestra in the past would agree with me."

The two musicians first performed the 40-minute Brahms Double Concerto with the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in September 1997. Los Angeles Times music reviewer Daniel Cariaga called them solid, accomplished and authoritative soloists, and apparently Salonen was equally impressed. "The performance was so fabulous, I was deeply moved and felt afterward it was something we had to do downtown as well," says Salonen. "Now it's finally happening."

For Wang, whose violinist father was a member of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, the pavilion appearance is a long-awaited moment. "It's a tremendous opportunity, especially working with Esa-Pekka Salonen on this occasion," Wang says. "He only conducts about 14 weeks out of the season, and to be able to work with him is very special. But it's a lot harder to stand in front of the orchestra and become a soloist because we are so used to being part of a big group."

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