From Apollo to zither

By Konzerthaus Berlin May 31, 2022

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The Konzerthaus Dictionary provides answers to questions about the Konzerthaus, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and concert visits. To start out with: section leader, principal string player, concertmaster, associate concertmaster, assistant concertmaster – the titles of the most prominent musicians can quickly become confusing. We explain what they mean.

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Section leader

One often refers to section leaders in connection with string instruments. Those of the first violins carry the title 1st concertmaster. This is a particularly prominent position. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin has three, at least one of whom plays in our concerts, sits in the first chair at the very outside front and is the conductor’s most important point of contact with the orchestra. The 1st concertmasters pass on his impulses to the colleagues further back and in other sections.

Some works (by Richard Strauss, for example) include concertmaster solos that are played by these musicians – something they particularly look forward to. In addition, there are two associate concertmasters who sit next to the 1st concertmaster or at the second stand, depending on the current instrumentation.

In the second violin section, the two section leaders in our orchestra are also called “concertmasters”, and there are also two “associate concertmasters”.

In the violas we have two principal violists who alternate as section leaders; in the cellos, two principal cellists, in the double basses, two principal double bass players. Two associate principals also play in each group. Not every orchestra has an assistant principal for each string section to support the leadership team, as we do.

A concert evening with two 1st concertmasters – Suyoen Kim (1st outer stand) and Sayako Kusaka (1st inner stand).

Our principal cellist Friedemann Ludwig on his duties as section leader

“The position of section leader has evolved historically – to quickly clarify musical issues for the entire orchestra, as in a string quartet. The hierarchy that goes with it is somewhat outdated, because nowadays everyone in an instrument group like ours plays very well. At the front, a certain leadership quality is required in both a musical and social sense. I have to quickly understand what a passage requires and how it sounds best. I am the link, so to speak, between the conductor and the instrument group and ensure that the same musical understanding emerges together within the cello group. Fingerings are chosen individually by each member of the group, but if strokes need to be aligned, the section leaders of all the string groups take care of this together. The fact that you are offered wonderful solos to play now and then makes the position even more appealing.”

Our two principal cellists Friedemann Ludwig (1st stand left) and Stefan Giglberger (1st stand right) with the cello section.

Some extra knowledge

String players who do not sit at the first stands are called “tuttists” (from the Italian tutti, all).

Wind instruments also have instrument groups or sections. For example, the principal oboist or principal hornist is the section leader.

In individual symphony orchestras, the musicians at the first stands traditionally have slightly different and sometimes additional titles such as “concertmaster of the cellos” or “chamber virtuosi”.

Apart from “concertmaster”, the English title for soloists in the orchestra is “principal”.

Photos: Marco Borggreve

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