Inside The Mind Of A Concertmaster
Glenn Basham reveals what it takes to get sweet music from the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.
For the non-classical music fan, Glenn Basham’s title—concertmaster of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra— can seem a bit imposing. But so is his job. The role is more than just being the first chair violinist. He’s also the liaison between the orchestra and the conductor, the guy who garners applause on behalf of his colleagues and generally the leader of the troops. Basham took what might be seen as an unorthodox manner of getting to where he’s at today. Although he had some violin training as a child, he didn’t start in earnest until he was in his early teens. But in many ways that has made him a more versatile player, being just as at home in the Phil’s jazz orchestra as he is playing the classical canon. Now going on nearly 20 years as the orchestra’s front man, Basham is an integral part of the Phil’s classical programming, especially without a full-time music director in place. We sat down with him before the start of the orchestra season to talk about what it takes to be a successful concertmaster.
Gulfshore Life: Are there times when the conductor goes off the rails during the performance, things fly out the window and you’re doing it blind?
Glenn Basham: In this orchestra, I would say that almost never happens. We have a really great orchestra. The second thing is, it’s very rare that there’s a conductor on the podium that isn’t outstanding. The only time it may happen is if we have a soloist who gets off (the tracks). The conductor has to go with the soloist, so we might have a little glitch for a second or two, but I would say that almost never happens.
GL: Isn’t there something more real and organic about it if there are happy accidents? Classical is so staged, so not spontaneous.
Basham: It’s a very great question. You’d be amazed how different each performance could be if you have a great musician on the podium with a really wonderful orchestra. There might be some amazing thing the singer’s doing, like they’re really on and (the conductor) just wants to hold that note longer and it’s so thrilling. It can be like hearing the piece for the first time. It’s wonderful to be in a really good orchestra. For most of the members, this was their first job out of college. So now we’ve all aged together. We all have kids, and some of us have grandkids. It’s been quite a journey.
GL: On stage, are you totally focused on what you’re doing, or are you trying to hear the piece as a whole?
Basham: Being totally focused on what you’re doing includes listening. It includes watching the conductor. It includes knowing where the soloist is. So yes, as the concertmaster, it’s a unique challenge. My first job is to just make the conductor happy. My second job is also making the conductor happy. That’s what it’s all about. The conductor might give a cue, but I hear my orchestra and if I came in right when he gave the cue, I would be early. There’s sort of this sixth sense. We’re not resting on our experience. You have to just stay with the moment and that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting. If the soloist suddenly starts to get excited and is moving ahead too fast, you have to go with that. You can’t just sit there and stay with the beat. We were doing these operas a few years back with an opera company that was traveling all over the country. It wasn’t the top level, and sometimes we wouldn’t have enough rehearsal time. Those (performances) were very, very challenging. In one way it was kind of exciting because you really didn’t know if you were going to make it. But on the other hand, after a certain point you’re saying, “This is crazy. Why are we trying to do this opera on one or two rehearsals? This is too scary.” The audience notices when it’s not perfect. I mean, it’s not just a regional orchestra down here. The people who come to our concerts are the people who go to the Chicago Symphony. They go hear the Cleveland Symphony. They go hear these really great orchestras during the year. And when they come down here, they want a certain standard.
GL: Does it feel weird with all the other people sitting up there, who are just as responsible for the concert as you’re going to be, to be the guy who gets all the applause?
Basham: The concertmaster’s traditional role is to take the accolades from the audience for the orchestra itself, to be the face of the orchestra. I pinch myself when I walk on stage. I really try not to be this giant ego walking on stage. My family will tell me if I’m exuding anything that looks or smacks of that kind of arrogant thing. I always acknowledge my wonderful colleagues in the orchestra because they’re all great. I feel fortunate and I feel it’s very hard to believe all these years have passed.
Onstage, Basham is a conduit to the orchestra for the conductor's vision. "My first job is just to make the conductor happy," he says.
A Different Kind of Background Helps
Basham’s less strenuous early music education might be what makes him such a versatile player, able to manage complex symphonic pieces, delightful pops numbers and still swing with the jazz orchestra.
Gulfshore Life: Do you think (not having a great deal of early classical training) affected the way that you play now? Do singing in the choir and doing other things like that affect the way you hear the music or look at the music?
Glenn Basham: Other people would say, “Oh, poor guy. He didn’t have the appropriate nurturing as a classical musician.” But in later years I realized I’m hungry for all different kinds of music. I like to play jazz and I actually enjoy playing the pops concerts. We have a lot of pops concerts in Naples—more than some of my colleagues would like.But they’re a lot of fun. We’ve started a jazz orchestra here, which I’m lucky to be a part of. I think that may be a reason why I may be a little more versatile with my music. So I haven’t personally thought of it as a detriment for myself to have not had that very Olympic training.
GL: I guess we sort of imagine the way people imagine the Tiger Mother approach to learning classical instruments.We think of guitar players as guys who picked up the guitar and started fooling around until they worked out a few chords. And they became John Lennon. But when we think of highly visible classical artists, we think of people who, we assume, trained until their fingers bled when they were six years old.
Basham: After I got to a certain point, I practiced all the time because I had to play catch up. I’m not aware of any short cut to developing those skills you need. I talk about this with my own students at the university. [Basham teaches at University of Miami.] But on the other hand, young musicians are much less apt to land a job in a symphony these days because there are more and more well-trained musicians and frankly, fewer and fewer symphonies like we have here in Naples. So although there are many, many musicians playing, not so many of them are making their money playing classical music for a living. I just returned from Italy. The orchestra programs in Europe are also struggling with financial problems. At the university, we’re really trying to train our kids to not just be great musicians to get a symphony job, but also maybe to learn how to play other styles of music, to be a little more versatile, to be an entrepreneur. —JF