What does it take to lead the world’s best opera orchestras? Laura Hamilton reveals what it takes to be a concertmaster and offers her best piece of advice to aspiring violinists.
Laura Hamilton began learning the violin at eight years old, but even the sage music teachers who told her she “had what it takes” could hardly have imagined a career that would take her from first violin at the Metropolitan Opera to concertmaster at the Sydney Opera House, thousands of kilometres across the sea!
Tell us a little bit about your career so far. You’re joining us from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra?
I’ve been Principal Associate Concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera since 1999. It’s a long and bulky title, but functionally it means that my role has been split between the 1st and 2nd chairs. I’ve been fortunate to have played a wealth of music with many great artists at the Met. Before coming to the Met, I was a section player in the Chicago Symphony, and before that, Principal Violin 2 in the New Jersey Symphony.
When did you start learning the violin? When did you know you would pursue it as a career?
I started violin lessons at age 8, but it wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I seriously considered music as a career. Around that time, I was fortunate enough to receive instruction from some master teachers who believed that I “had what it takes.” They encouraged me to go to music conservatory and pursue my studies seriously.
Career highlight so far?
It’s so tough to pinpoint just one highlight. But right up near the top of the list would be a couple of days about 6 years ago, when I played Massenet’s Thais at the Met, which features the concertmaster in the exquisite Meditation. That was the only time I took a solo bow from the stage, right along with the principal artists, who happened to be Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson! The next day I led Tristan und Isolde with Maestro Daniel Barenboim, which was a peak experience in itself.
What skills do you need to be a Concertmaster? (i.e, how do you graduate from the back desk to the hot seat?)
The concertmaster must be a fine violinist, obviously. One of the important duties is to play whatever violin solos come up in any given piece, so it is expected that the concertmaster can dispatch those beautifully and reliably. Not to mention having command over all the music, solo or not, along with a sure sense of style. Additionally, the concertmaster is a direct liaison to the conductor, and often the conductor relies on the concertmaster to help transmit his or her interpretive vision and/or specific instructions to the orchestra.
But equally important and a bit more difficult to quantify are the qualities of leadership which must be brought to the role. I am talking not only about physical leadership– moving so that the section can pick up from my body language details about style and simply when to come in– but also personal leadership. Each section is a team within the larger ensemble. We need to work as a team, so that each player understands that his or her contribution is essential to the success of the whole picture. It is my job to help make that happen, and to make each musician feel proud of the artistic results.
What lured you to Australia? What are you looking forward to about living in Australia?
I guess the practical lure was that the opening came along at a time when I was seeking a full-time concertmaster position in an English-speaking country, and the job fit just seemed so perfect for me. To be frank, I didn’t know much about Australia before my first visit. After spending some weeks in Sydney for the audition and mini-trial back in July 2012, my feelings are, who wouldn’t want to live in Sydney?? I think it is one of the most beautiful and exciting cities I have ever known.
I am really looking forward to sharing this experience with my family. My husband and 16-year-old daughter will be joining me here in January, and my daughter will be attending high school of course, which I hope will be a wonderful and broadening experience for her.
What is your favourite piece of music to perform? Why?
It really is impossible for me to single out a favourite piece of music! I play a lot of chamber music, so probably something from that repertory would be among my favourites. How about the Schubert Octet, which I just performed a few months ago? Or nearly any Brahms chamber music? Mozart G-minor viola quintet, slow movement?
Ah, but thinking about Mozart brings me straight to opera, which is so full of masterpieces, from one night to the next. Don Giovanni, which we will play this winter in Sydney. Verdi’s Otello, dramatic and incomparably inventive and rich. Let’s not forget Tchaikovsky’s beloved Eugene Onegin, which is so beautiful and so very Russian. But to tell you the truth, I fall in love every time I play La bohème, which will open our summer season on New Year’s Eve. As you can see, I can’t give you a straight answer about a favourite.
Where is the most unusual place you have ever performed?
I have performed in so many different settings, indoor and outdoor venues, all over the world. I can’t think of anything which was truly unusual, like on the back of an elephant or anything like that. But something which stands out in my memory was a wedding which I played for way back when I was a student at Manhattan School of Music in New York. The job was booked through the employment office at the school, so I didn’t know anything about the bridal party. I had to take the subway out to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, to a very poor neighbourhood where I had never been. It was a very small wedding in a public school, but the bride wanted violin music for the ceremony. They didn’t even know what to ask for, so I just played unaccompanied Bach, ad libitum. The young couple were so full of hope and love, and they had so little else as they started their life together. It was a very moving experience for me.
Do you have any quirky routines for show days? e.g. endurance snacks, stretching, meditation, superstitions…
I have all sorts of routines before I play. I need to feel that my body is loose and relaxed and the muscles are supple and ready to go. The best way for me to achieve that is through exercise, especially swimming. I work out with weights a little for the upper body, then I go in the spa, swim, and stretch afterwards in the sauna.
You meet a child who is learning the violin. What is your number one piece of advice?
The most obvious advice I have for a young student is practise, practise, practise. But of course that is an over-simplification. The child needs to have an experienced teacher who will guide her technical and musical growth in a personalized and appropriately-paced way. All young musicians should have ensembles to play in–a youth orchestra and chamber music if they’re lucky. Music-making is a shared joy! And take every opportunity to listen and watch, go to concerts, operas, ballet…The more they hear, the more they know what possibilities are in store for them.
When I was a young teen, just beginning to get into more advanced repertoire, I randomly checked out a record (LP) from the public library: virtuoso violinist Michael Rabin playing the complete Paganini Caprices. I didn’t even know who Michael Rabin was, nor Paganini. I listened over and over to that recording, mesmerized and astonished. I never dreamed the violin could produce those sounds!