Washington, DC --
The Marine Chamber Orchestra’s Saturday, July 29 performance will include all of the usual details: a friendly public affairs specialist handing out programs in the lobby, creative programming, and sharply dressed musicians in splendid red uniforms performing at the top of their game. But patrons will definitely notice what is missing: a conductor waving a baton. The concert will instead be led by the orchestra’s Concertmaster Staff Sgt. Karen Johnson. She joined “The President’s Own” in 2011 and was appointed to her position in October 2015, after having served as Concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and guest concertmaster of the Seattle, Oregon, and Phoenix Symphonies.
Between preparing for Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which she performed with the Marine Chamber Orchestra in June and this concert, Johnson and principal cello Master Gunnery Sgt. Marcio Botelho took a few moments to explain the significance of a conductorless concert and the role of Concertmaster.
How will not having a conductor change things for you as the Concertmaster?
Johnson: Probably the biggest change is that all of the string players will be taking on the artistic reins during this concert. Through what will be a process of give and take, a somewhat democratic process, we will all come together and decide what our vision is for these masterwork pieces. The concertmaster in this instance facilitates this process by offering artistic direction and also implementing the musical decisions that we as a group have made.
Describe your role as the concertmaster. What are your responsibilities?
Johnson: I see the concertmaster in most instances as a musical assistant to the conductor of the orchestra. We are kind of like translators. After the conductor makes musical and technical decisions about any particular piece of music, the concertmaster translates those ideas into specific actions so we can collectively implement those ideas. We might change the way we are bowing a particular passage, change the types of sound and volume, or any number of changes. I also receive the music for any concert we do ahead of time to put some bowings and musical ideas into the parts, even before we rehearse, so that all the musicians can show up to the first rehearsal almost performance ready. Professional musicians typically don’t rehearse more than four times as a large group before any given concert, and with all the responsibilities that all the musicians have in the Marine Band, we have to make the most of our rehearsal time. And the work the concertmaster and other string principals do before we even sit down to the first rehearsal makes the process go much more quickly.
How did you pick the program?
Johnson: I picked the program with input from my colleagues. We wanted to feature our principal cellist, Master Gunnery Sgt. Bothelho, to highlight him and his amazing career in the Marine Chamber Orchestra. After programming this piece on this concert, I later found out that this concerto is also the very first concerto that he played with the orchestra almost 30 years ago! In addition, Verklarte Nacht is one of those transcendent pieces that is absolutely timeless and haunting and unspeakably beautiful every time one hears it. It was a piece I could not get out of my head. I wanted our audience to be transported on a summer’s evening into a “transfigured night” and I couldn’t think of a better piece of music to accomplish that.
What is your favorite piece or passage on the program?
Johnson: If I had to give this concert a title, it would be “Vienna Nights.” The reason being that there is a thread throughout—not just the ties that all of the composers have to each other and to Vienna, but also that this music touches on the universality of the winding down of day and the events of an evening. Whether it be singing and playing music with family or friends in the living room, or going to a formal event or concert in the evening, or just a very still quiet conversation on a night time walk, it all seems to shine with the glow of a fireplace, or bright lights, or the stars in the night sky.
Botelho: The Haydn concerto is significant and notable in so many ways: it is one of the earliest concertos for the cello, and certainly the earliest truly virtuoso piece for the instrument. Until Haydn, with the notable exception of J. S. Bach’s six Suites for unaccompanied cello, the instrument was treated as a utilitarian reinforcer of bass lines. It’s as if composers didn’t trust or realize its virtuosic and lyrical potential. So along comes Haydn, and he basically elevates cello writing some ten levels from where it had been. Even though many difficult pieces have been written for the cello since then, this piece is still considered one of the hardest in the repertoire; one of the reasons for that is that the writing is very transparent, so any deviations in, say, intonation, to name one parameter, become very obvious. I don’t want to psych myself out too much here, but suffice it to say this piece is still a required solo for auditions to many of the major symphony orchestras in the world. This piece is very near and dear to me; I first started working on it in 1980 and this will be my second performance of it with the Marine Chamber Orchestra. The first was in May 1990, just 10 months after I joined the band. I won my audition to the Marine Band with this concerto as my solo of choice, and for the last 37 years I have returned to it many times, so it feels like an old friend. I feel extremely lucky to play it one more time, especially because I’ll be playing it with an amazing bunch of musicians who happen to be my friends.
How common/uncommon is it to have no conductor?
Johnson: Historically, concertmasters have been around a lot longer than conductors, believe it or not! The reason for the title “concertmaster” is that the lead violinist really was the “master” of the concert for about 200 years starting in the 1500s. However, in the 19th century the music being written at that time was calling for ever increasing forces of musicians, resulting in larger everything—concert halls, audiences, and bigger and louder instruments. That’s when the idea of the conductor was born. He or she is the only person on the stage who doesn’t make a sound and but at the same time has the enormous responsibility of steering a large group in a collective and cohesive way. It’s perhaps a little unusual to see an “unconducted” orchestra concert these days, but this is the way things were done for a long time. Our Marine Chamber Orchestra is the perfect size group to return to the old model of musician-led performances. The Haydn Cello Concerto on our concert certainly would have been performed without a conductor in Haydn’s time, or perhaps with Haydn himself sitting at the harpsichord leading the orchestra. The Brahms Liebeslieder waltzes were originally conceived as beautiful “parlor” pieces to be played and enjoyed in close settings with family and friends.
Botelho: If memory services, this is the first time since 1991 or 1992 we’re doing an entirely “conductorless” concert. We’re a small orchestra and the level of talent and ability is so high, I feel that we’re all going to slip automatically into chamber music mode. We will be sending and receiving visual and aural cues from each other, so we won’t really be conductorless, because we will in fact have many conductors. One of our main conductors will of course be our awesome concertmaster, Karen Johnson. All of us are used to following her already, which is pretty easy, because she expresses her musical intent so clearly.
The Marine Chamber Orchestra will perform at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 29 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. Free parking is available in the adjacent garage.