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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Conductor's handshakes and solo bows,
with classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I know this sounds stupid but I feel low. I am a principal second violin, and at the end of the concert I was ignored by the conductor. It was a biggish concert (Mahler 6) and we all had our bits, if you know what I mean, and he shook hands with the leader and the principal cello and got all the principal winds to their feet and I just felt a bit left out (so did the principal viola, I'll bet, though he'd never admit it.)

Was the conductor rude or am I being oversensitive?

A Midlands violinist

Dear fiddler,

Of course you feel low. Playing second violin is enough to lower anybody, without being ignored and mucked about by conductors. I mean, who sets out in life with the ambition to be a second anything? Even second violinists in top quartets get a bit narked about this, apparently (some of them share the leading, of course.)

The fact is, it's the conductor's fault. Conductors should have been taught at mother's knee to shake hands with everything that moves. ('George, dear, shake hands with teddy for doing a good job letting you cuddle him all night. Very good. Now don't forget panda!')

Though of course this attitude can lead to some funnies. ('Why'd he shake my hand?' I once heard a bemused fellow asking another player as the conductor exited stage right.
'Aren't you the timpanist?' asked the double bass.
'No, I tuned the piano.')

It's also, I feel, a little bit funny when a conductor does some puny little programme and then rushes around ingratiating himself with the troops by shaking their hands as if they've just climbed the Alpine Symphony together. But Mahler sixth is certainly worth a handshake, and unless said conductor is actually sleeping with the principal cello then I think you (and your violist colleague) are certainly justified in feeling hard done by. (Conductors are never excused from shaking hands with leader, not even when they are in the middle of divorcing or attempting to fire each other.)

Principal winds are accustomed to smirking to their feet (and they mainly deserve it) but the etiquette for strings is much less clear. When exactly is the conductor thanking his principal cello for his William Tell, and when the first five? When is he admiring the joint timbre of the violas and not the principal's itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny polka-dot bikini solo three movements before?

I personally am so gifted at standing up that I've more than once as cello three nimbly followed my leader to his feet only to remember too late that he murdered some solo or other earlier in the proceedings and have to sit down again (very embarrassing). So do as I say rather than as I do, and practice a becoming reticence when asked to arise. ('Who, me? Waal shucks, that little old solo?')

Once, while touring Japan with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, I was summoned to my feet on my own from the middle of the cello section!!!!!!!!! -- and the funniest part was that, as I left the hall, various young and earnest-looking Japanese string players (assuming I must have done something clever that they'd missed) queued for my autograph!!!!!

What had actually happened was this: the conductor, who was a bit of a joker, generally got the entire viola section to their feet, en masse, at the end of each concert (they had a soupy bit; it was all pop-style stuff.) Now the cello section had plenty of soupy bits, and I complained that he ought to make the cellos stand up once, just to make it fair. Instead of doing that, he turned from the winds and indicated me (I think I was fourth), and wouldn't rest until I was getting a solo round of applause, just for having been cheeky, the b*stard.

(I never could get those Japanese kiddies to understand the joke. Probably some of them are still treasuring the autograph of the fourth cellists in the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra ...)

Yours in reminiscent mode,

Copyright © 21 November 2003 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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