The $500,000 seat


While millions have been gripped by World Cup soccer mania -- and rightly so -- another team sport is losing one of its very best. New York Philharmonic concert master Glenn Dicterow retired several weeks ago after 6,033 performances and 34 years as concert master -- the longest tenure in the New York Philharmonic's 172 years. Although not nearly as well-known as the conductors he sat near, Dicterow certainly contributed to the success of such legends as Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. Concertgoers, both experienced and novice, see and hear the ritual of the concert master tuning up the orchestra, but most don't comprehend the careful leadership involved in getting a huge unwieldy team -- from piccolos to bassoons -- to work as one. By all accounts, Dicterow was a supremely skillful and effective leader.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the philharmonic's principal cellist Carter Bray explains that Dicterow excelled in an aspect of the job that is critical for the orchestra: He could translate between the conductor and the section players. Says Bray, "Glenn is so good at that because he's such a superb instrumentalist that he can command the respect of the highly gifted and opinionated players in the section." Dicterow himself likens his role to that of a team captain: "(It's) not just making decisions, but getting everybody on the same page and getting along, so we can be constructive and productive."

Alan Gilbert, the philharmonic's current music director told the New York Times that Dicterow had played a significant role in shaping the orchestra's sound; replacing him would be very difficult. Gilbert described his predicament: "The concertmaster is the single most important person in terms of being able to guide the flow of the music, and affecting the sound of the entire orchestra." He then stressed that Mr. Dicterow is "unusually brilliant" at understanding and translating the wishes of conductors.

Dicterow understands that an orchestra's inner tensions or any frustration at a conductor gets in the way of creating luscious sound. He explains, "(L)et's say we have a guest conductor who, basically, rubs people the wrong way -- it's my job to make peace. Everybody needs to get along to make gorgeous music. That's the bottom line." He views himself as an on-the-spot problem solver and a principal who leads by example. His upbeat energy and tone help inspire the dynamism of the whole orchestra.

Lisa Kim, a former student who now plays for the NY Philharmonic, agrees. "The positive energy that he has really affects the whole orchestra onstage," she says. Kim -- who is now associate principal second violin -- told Jeff Lunden of NPR recently that Dicterow taught her much more than musical lessons over the years. She reflected, "(I) didn't really realize it at that time; I mean, you play well and that's fine... But it's more than that." Music director Gilbert concurs: "Glenn Dicterow is the quintessential concertmaster. The concertmaster more than any other individual musician in an orchestra can really affect not just the sound, but the whole attitude, the whole approach to music. And I don't think you'll ever hear anyone say a bad word about Glenn; he's loved by all his colleagues."

Many in the field consider Glenn Dicterow so talented that he has achieved the status of a legend. But Gilbert reminds us that although anyone coming into the concertmaster position at the NY Philharmonic will have big shoes to fill, talented concertmasters evolve with experience. "When he started, he wasn't (a legend)," said Mr. Gilbert. "So we're not looking for another Glenn Dicterow, because there's not another Glenn Dicterow."

Whether it's a top-tier orchestra, a non-profit organization or an elite soccer team, all groups who wish to thrive need an effective concertmaster -- someone in the trenches each day setting the tone, leading by example and doing the hard work of perfecting their mastery.

Clearly soccer fans and commentators will continue their cacophony as they scrutinize Brazil's humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany for years to come. But although the details are important, there's no denying that Brazil lacked a concertmaster on the field that night. With star players Neymar and Thiago Silva both out of the game, Ken Early of Slate argues that "(r)ather than make a real plan, (Brazil) abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion, desire, and native cunning." Early concludes: "A fevered dream isn't enough. You need a vision."

Some Brazilian soccer fanatics prefer to blame aging rocker Mick Jagger for their crushing loss. According to Jason Burt of The Telegraph, they have dubbed him "pe frio" (cold foot); they think Jagger carries a dastardly jinx with him. Supposedly, any team Jagger roots for in the World Cup loses. Jagger was in the stands with his 15-year-old son, Lucas, at the Brazil/Germany debacle cheering for his ex-girlfriend's home team.

There's something so tantalizing about the "Pe Frio" theory -- has Jagger made a pact with the devil that allows him to strut and shimmy at the age of 70? -- but I am more inclined to think that the Brazilian national soccer team should find and cultivate soccer's version of a Glenn Dicterow. And although this critical player would fetch upwards of eight million Euros (which makes Dicterow's salary of half a million dollars look like a bargain), Brazilian soccer fans will see it as money well spent if it will head off another mortifying defeat and get their beloved footballers to play more beautiful music together.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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