Offstage with... Dale Barltrop.jpg

Offstage with... Dale Barltrop

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What’s your favourite thing to do offstage?
Swimming. I grew up swimming competitively, which meant waking up at 4.30am every day for training. I was really serious for many years. But then I went to college in the States and didn’t keep it up. It wasn’t until several years ago that I began swimming again and it has now become my saving grace… both physically and mentally. I love it.

How old were you when you moved to America?
I was 18 and had just finished High School in Brisbane. I moved to study at the University of Maryland with Dr Gerald Fischbach, who was a wonderful, nurturing teacher. We met when he visited Australia when I was in Grade 11. I had an amazing lesson with him and he suggested that I consider studying with him in the US. My teacher in Brisbane said, ‘This is it. You have to grab this opportunity and go overseas!’ My parents had a minor heart attack… but I did it!

How long did you live overseas for?
In total, I was away for 18 years. I studied for four years in Maryland and one year in Cleveland, then worked in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for seven years. Throughout that time I found myself coming back to Australia more and more frequently, particularly after I won the job in Vancouver. It was then that I started doing some guest appearances with the MSO.

When did you move back?
In 2016. I officially started with the MSO in 2014 and for the first two years I traveled back and forth between Melbourne and Vancouver. In 2016 I made the permanent move back to Australia, when I joined the Australian String Quartet. The opportunity to work in a quartet alongside my MSO position was too good to be true. It also meant that I could focus my life in one country. It had become tough to sustain a “bi-hemispheric” lifestyle, as glamorous as it sounds!

Having lived and worked across the world, where’s your favourite place to perform?
One of my all-time favourite venues to perform in has to be the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It has a special place in my heart since I first performed there with AYO back in 2001. But performing with the MSO at the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall to an audience of 5000+ people was pretty mind-blowing.

When did you become Concertmaster?
My first Concertmaster position was with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which began in 2009. I then took on the role with the MSO in 2014 and for two years, I was Concertmaster with both orchestras, which kept me insanely busy.

Concertmasters have such a presence on stage. Tell us a bit more about the role and what it requires.
The Concertmaster is the lead violinist, whose job it is to be the conduit between the Conductor and the Orchestra. I work very closely with the Conductor in rehearsals to make sure that the Orchestra is united in its approach. The Concertmaster will always stand at the beginning of every rehearsal and concert to signal the Orchestra to tune and will shake the Conductor’s hand in a symbolic gesture of collegiality between the musicians and the maestro. Perhaps most obviously, the Concertmaster performs all of the violin solos required in any given orchestral work.

Behind the scenes, the Concertmaster also determines the coordination and direction of the string players’ bows, because generally speaking, this is not prescribed by the composer. Bowings are always changing at the discretion of the Conductor and Concertmaster. There are often many possibilities for bowing a given passage and it’s very dependent on the Conductor and how they want that passage to sound.

What’s the process to design the bowings?
Up to a month or two before any given concert I’ll receive the first violin part for each piece and prepare the bowings as best as I can based on my knowledge of the music and of the MSO. From there it goes back to the music librarians, who will distribute my bowings to the other principal string players. They’ll bow their respective parts according to the decisions I’ve made and then send it back to the library who will transfer all of our markings into each and every part. It’s a huge operation and we depend very heavily on our wonderful friends in the library.

Speaking of huge operations, I’ve always wanted to know, what happens if you break a string on stage?!
As a Concertmaster, if I break a string I will instantly switch violins with the Associate Concertmaster, who will then switch their violin with the person behind them so that we can both keep playing! Then it’ll often be the person who is sitting in the fourth chair who will change the string. We actually keep a spare E string in the folder of the second stand, as this is the string most likely to break.

Has it ever happened to you?
A few times. It’s always a bit of a shock. I mean, there’s a minor explosion in your instrument and suddenly you’re not playing any notes anymore! There was a time in Vancouver where a string broke right as I was approaching a solo. I ended up performing that solo on a violin I’d never played before and it was very unnerving.

What are your highlights for the rest of the year?
The week that I play/direct is one of my favourite weeks in the year. It’s a really special experience to pare down the orchestra and work without a conductor. Suddenly everyone has to rely on each other a lot more. It’s a totally different dynamic. And we’ll be standing up to perform, which is a very welcome change and adds an extra level of energy and excitement to the music. The program features the 1st and 3rd Brandenburg Concertos of Bach… works of sheer genius. It will be a hoot!


Dale will be play/directing at Melbourne Recital Centre, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash, and in Ballarat next month.