Meet Dale Barltrop, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster and one quarter of the Australian String Quartet. Our intern, Sam Leaman, caught up with one quarter of the Australian String Quartet ahead of his cross-collaborative performance with the MSO and ASQ later this month.
The MSO and the Australian String Quartet have a collaborative concert coming up. You’re there as a member of both of these groups. That must be incredibly exciting! How does it feel to be on both sides of the fence?
I couldn’t be happier to bring together my two musical families. Most of the time, the string quartet and orchestral genres operate in completely different spheres, so to marry the two, as Matthew Hindson has brilliantly done in his piece “The Rave and the Nightingale”, is a very rare occasion!
What’s the vibe like backstage? Is there any rivalry between the two groups and you’re thrown in the middle and having to pick sides?!
Well, with Francesca, Sharon and myself all having been members of the MSO (both past and present) the vibe is nothing but fun and games. We are all great friends and in a collaboration such as this, the camaraderie is very strong! It’s also a reunion for ASQ violist Stephen King and the MSO’s principal viola Chris Moore, who were both former members of the ACO.
Your role within the Orchestra is Concertmaster. Forgive my ignorance, but what exactly is the role of the concertmaster compared to the role of Conductor, for example?
The Concertmaster is the lead violinist and is essentially the link between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra. Aside from playing the violin solos in any symphonic work, the Concertmaster’s role is to assist the conductor to ensure that the musicians of the orchestra are unified in their interpretation of the score. This requires a great deal of preparation ahead of rehearsals and engagement during rehearsals. It’s a very dynamic role and I absolutely love the satisfaction of working with so many diverse musicians.
How did you find your way into classical music? Were you one of those babies who needed Beethoven playing in the background to fall asleep?
I would say that I WAS one of those babies. It wasn’t necessarily always Beethoven, but classical music was a fascination of mine from a very young age. I was only interested in toys that played tunes. I was transfixed when I first heard a violinist perform live. I was obsessed with conducting the William Tell Overture in our living room along to my dad’s LP. And I insisted on taping every page of the score to The Four Seasons over my bedroom wall, once I became barely competent enough to play along with my cassette tape.
Being a violinist must be hard work on the arms, especially on the ‘ceps (both tri and bi). Do you have to do any special training to condition your arms to being on stage for hours at a time?
It is immensely hard work playing a musical instrument for long hours every day. We all have to find ways to take care of our bodies and to prevent injury, which unfortunately, is common among professional musicians. Some do yoga, pilates, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais or other forms of strengthening and stretching. I swim. It is my zen. I’ve been a swimmer all my life and it is my favourite form of exercise. For me, it is essential for my physical AND mental well-being.
Speaking of arms, violinists always do such extravagant movements in time with each other. I believe it’s called ‘Bowing’ – not to be confused with the type of plane. Explain bowing to me, and how do you know where and when to bow?
Bowing is quite simply the direction and coordination of our bows. There are only two options – down bow and up bow, each with its own symbol pencilled above certain notes in the music to indicate which direction the bow is to travel. Only two options, you say? How hard can it be? Well, what many people do not realise is that there are usually a multitude of ways to bow any given passage in any given piece. The composer will sometimes give indications that will assist us in determining the bowing, but ultimately it is the Concertmaster’s duty to determine the 1st violin bowings in advance of the rehearsals (and in turn, the principal of each string section will determine their bowings in relation to the Concertmaster’s). Bowings are always subject to change throughout the course of rehearsals as required by the interpretation of the Conductor and Concertmaster. It is a fascinating and ever-evolving process, but it is also one of the most time-consuming and painstaking duties of a Concertmaster!
Your career has taken you all over the world, and you’ve played with some of the world’s biggest orchestras. It would seem as though you’ve done everything! Is there anything left for you to conquer?
Every performance I play is a new adventure and a new challenge. As an artist, I am in constant search of inspiration and improvement. While I have been fortunate to have many transformative musical experiences in my life so far, I am always looking towards the next concert and treating each one as if it were my last!
On top of that, you’ve performed in some of the most incredible cities in the world? What makes performing in Melbourne so exciting compared to some of the other places you’ve performed?
The MSO. Every world-class city deserves a world-class orchestra. The depth of talent and passion within the MSO never ceases to fill me with great pride. It’s also a really fun-loving group of people and they are like family to me.
With a career spanning so many years it must be tough to pick a highlight. BUT, I’m going to ask you anyway. What’s one of the highlight of your career so far?
Without a doubt, walking onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms in 2014, in my first year with the MSO. Mum and dad, who had flown over from Brisbane, were in the audience and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud to be an Aussie!
See Dale Barltrop perform in MSO and the Australian String Quartet on Thursday 30 and Friday 31 March.