The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Violinist Naha Greenholtz talks about being the new concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and performing Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” this weekend.

March 30, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You might even say that this weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra will offer an ambitious program featuring not one but TWO soloists.

The program includes American composer Kevin Puts’ “Inspiring Beethoven”; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, which is famous for the interplay between the piano and the orchestra and which will feature the return of prize-winning French pianist Philippe Bianconi.

But also on the program is Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) with major solos by the new MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (below), who started in her post at the beginning of this season and who was recently featured on the cover of “Symphony” magazine in a  story about six new concertmasters.

Performances are in Overture Hall on tonight, Friday night, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $13.50 to $78.50. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141. Or visit:

For more information about the concert and soloists, including videos, videos, visit the MSO at :

To read or download program notes by J. Michael Allsen, visit:

Greenholtz, who keeps a very busy schedule, recently gave The Ear an email interview:

What special skills and responsibilities did you learn in concertmaster school to do that other violinists in the orchestra do not have to do?

The concertmaster’s primary responsibility, beyond the obvious — playing the first violin parts and all solos — is to help facilitate a smooth rehearsal process.  While there is some historical precedent for the concertmaster’s “jurisdiction” to be more comprehensive and orchestra-wide, the standard in modern orchestras has limited that role to oversight of the strings generally, with special emphasis on the violin section (below).

I’ll give two ordinary examples of what I mean: Say a particular conductor is not a string player. When they make a musical comment that requires something specific from the strings, perhaps a certain “color” of sound or a particular kind of articulation or phrasing, then that person often will defer to the concertmaster for a solution. In these instances, the concertmaster then will speak up and address the group, offering specific technical advice as to how the strings can achieve this goal.

Another example: In a professional orchestra rehearsal time in any given week is limited to only a few hours, so every second counts.  Sometimes in the heat of battle, the conductor might only have time to address larger scale issues at the expense of some smaller detail-like stuff like ensemble accuracy, intonation, and things like this.  As a concertmaster, one must always be ready fill in these gaps, cleaning up the little imperfections whenever possible so the conductor can focus on the big picture.

Walking this line between being both a leader and also an equal member of the section is always challenging. But the position has obvious artistic rewards and so the effort (and stress) is really worth it.

How has your first season gone with the MSO? Do you have an opinion of Madison and its audiences? 

I should start by saying that I just love Madison. I’m preaching to the choir, I know, but it really is a gem of a city with an exciting and vibrant music scene.  It never ceases to amaze me that the MSO can do triple performances on any given weekend and nearly fill the house for each show.  Many larger market cities cannot make this claim.

This audience clearly loves its orchestra and we at the Madison Symphony Orchestra are lucky to have such knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans.  Again, not every orchestra has this!  Their energy and love of the music really bring out the best from the group.

As for the orchestra, I consider myself very fortunate to have such dedicated and skillful colleagues. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, meeting so many lovely musicians and of course working with John DeMain (below) who is such a charismatic leader and artist. I have felt “at home” here from the first day.

What can you tell us about Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and especially your role as a soloist in it? Was it part of the tryout for your position? Can you tell us something about the piece and what it means to you or what the audience should listen for? 

This really is the premiere concertmaster solo as far as I’m concerned and, yes, it was part of my audition.  In fact I’ve rarely taken a concertmaster audition where it was not asked!  It’s really a violinist’s dream – Strauss (below) gives so many colorful descriptors to the performer like “Hypocritically Languishing,” “Sweet and Sentimental,” “Naggingly,” etc.  He wrote this solo to musically depict his wife and to show her many moods.

My teacher from the Concertmaster Academy Bill Preucil (below right, with Cleveland Symphony Orchestra conductor Franz Welser Moest on the left) once told me, “when I play this spot I think of that look on my 11-year-old daughter’s face when she’s about to ask for something expensive.” The solo is just filled with such dramatic opportunities, it’s almost like acting. The composer really invites the performer to explore these many moods and to indulge in the whole range of expression the music requires, including an explosive “temper tantrum” where Strauss says to get ever “Faster and Angrier.”  After preparing the solo for auditions over the last few years, it’s exciting to now perform it with orchestra.

Next season you will solo in the Violin Concerto by Mendelssohn (below). What can you tell is about that work and any others in which you will play a special role? 

To be honest, I haven’t looked that far ahead yet, so the specific orchestral repertoire is still slightly off my radar.  The Mendelssohn, of course, will be a blast.  Everyone knows that violinists are positively spoiled with great repertoire, but even for us, Mendelssohn’s concerto stands out as a special treasure.  It really is one of the greatest concerti ever written for any instrument.

Also, it has special significance to me as it was the first solo concerto I played with orchestra, when I made my debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra when I was 14.  It has been over 10 years since then, so I’m looking forward to re-learning it as an adult.  And of course working with John on it will be a delight. He is always a wonderful and sensitive concerto accompanist.

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