Nick Grant: "In a fast tempo, two bars before our entrance and one bar in a slow tempo, I put my violin up in the air."
  • Nick Grant: "In a fast tempo, two bars before our entrance and one bar in a slow tempo, I put my violin up in the air."
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Having no idea what a concertmaster might be, when asked to interview Nick Grant of the San Diego Symphony, I looked up the term in my Penguin edition of A New Dictionary of Music. It appears as one word and says merely, “The first violinist of an orchestra (following German term Konzertmeister-Eng., leader.” It sounded to me like a conductor brandishing a violin, and I wasn’t far off.

My ignorance of classical music should be confessed as soon as possible here. As a kid, I thought The 1812 Overture was the only classical record in the house worth listening to. I could at least understand the cannons, and I thought it was a great piece of music. It wasn’t until well into my 30s, after years of playing rock and Chicago blues, that I heard Brahms’s Concerto in G minor and felt moved and excited in a new way. The piece had similarities, it seemed to me, to rock and roll. Heresy, no doubt.

This is why I told concertmaster Nick Grant on the telephone that he could assume I know nothing, had no preconceived journalistic “angle.” I told him my musical background as a rock and roller, I was apologetic about it. “I always wanted to do that,” he said, “but I was afraid it might hurt my hearing.” I was tempted to shout into the receiver, “WHAT?” Instead I told him only that he was right. My hearing has suffered from standing in front of amplifiers for years. He invited me to a rehearsal of the San Diego Pops Orchestra at the Navy Pier. They were working on a night of Gershwin.

A vast, white canvas curtain had been drawn in front of the outdoor stage to protect the musicians — more importantly, their instruments — from the August sun. I sat at stage right, only feet from 81 musicians. They rehearsed songs such as “S’wonderful, S’marvelous,” something my parents would have listened to and I have dismissed whenever I heard it as hopelessly corny. It’s the kind of song I associate with the old Dinah Shore or The Dean Martin Show of the ’60s. But in this proximity to these players with skill that rendered my guitar antics to chimpanzee status, I was excited, impressed, stirred.

The singer, Bill Hutton, was belting this baby out, stopping now and then to confer with the conductor, Matthew Garbutt, as to whether he should kind of scat-sing in unison with the strings at a particular bridge, drop out, or what They then rehearsed “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” These were all songs Mel Torme would sing — and I’m sure he had. This, I’ve told myself, is not my kind of stuff, and I did not associate these songs with the Gershwin of “Rhapsody in Blue” — which I loved as a kid. I never thought of “Rhapsody...” as classical music but as the soundtrack to the cool, urban life I was going to live when I grew up. I also associated it with the streets of Chicago where I was born and not the Manhattan that inspired Gershwin (and later Woody Allen). But as I listened at Navy Pier recently, I was in awe of the quality of musicianship I was hearing and witnessing. I watched violinists bowing with clockwork precision, listened to a guy that looked like he should be an assistant manager at Wal-Mart play a sax solo that was — and there is no other word, I’m sorry — cool. Very cool. Mostly my eyes were drawn to the one guitarist, Art Johnson, playing this gorgeous old acoustic — some sort of Gibson, I figured — but I couldn’t make out what it was, exactly, from where I was sitting. (Later Johnson told me it was a 1925 Gibson L4.) While the guitar was miked, I couldn’t hear what he was playing, but I watched his hands. He was comping some chords I had some idea of but probably couldn’t play in quick succession, as he was doing, with a gun to my head: major sevenths, augmented stuff, octave things, and triads. Stuff I understood visually, but to play... you might as well ask me to perform “Swan Lake” on the buzuki.

I looked around and wondered which one was Nick Grant. I had no idea what he looked like.

Rehearsal ended at 12:30. The heat, even behind the canvas, was considerable. An easy breeze off the bay would creep around the sides of the stage, making things not only bearable but also pleasant. The musicians left smiling, satisfied. I would be too. I was still a little confused as to how it was I had just enjoyed, so thoroughly, music that, in the past, has elicited from me only groans. It struck me what various types of people these were. Very few of them were the severe, schoolteacher-like characters I have developed as a mental image of the classical musician. I had a new admiration for this bunch and momentarily cursed San Diego for letting this orchestra go broke and wither a few years back.

A woman named Lisa introduced me to Nick Grant backstage. We went into “the musicians’ lounge,” a trailer behind the stage structure.

Grant is tall with sandy brown hair that flops over his forehead as he thinks of answers to questions, then seems to reject his own answers before he speaks them. This accents a boyishness in the 48-year-old musician who “...started piano at 4 and violin at 8.”

“What is your job, exactly?”

“First of all,” I think he had rehearsed this answer, “the concertmaster should be the most capable violinist in the orchestra. As concertmaster I perform incidental violin solos and major concertos.”

“So, you’re first violinist?” I was proud of sounding savvy. Someone had armed me with this information going in. I wouldn’t have had a clue.

“Right.” Grant is too polite to have said, “Duh!” “If the conductor is dissatisfied with the orchestra’s interpretation of the music, I can help to make changes in the phrasing and musical ideas. For instance, occasionally in rehearsal, the orchestra will start to play after the beat. So I stand up and tell everybody to play precisely on the bottom of the beat. We have a delay from the back of the stage to the front. Sometimes the winds and the brass are a little behind us [strings]. And if we have a guest conductor, it helps if I tell everybody, ‘Okay, some of us are hesitating. Don’t hesitate.’ Because the people in the front are playing right on the bottom, and if you hesitate — well, actually, the strings will start to hesitate sometimes. And maybe the winds and brass, because of this distance interval, will start to play right on the bottom of the beat, and the strings will delay and end up being behind them.” Grant grins like, “Can you imagine such a thing?” Me, I couldn’t tune a violin or get three different notes out of a tuba.

“Does this happen outdoors only?” I’m guessing, of course.

“No. It happens indoors. It happens at Symphony Hall. Anyway, I also coordinate the bowings in the string section. And serve as a liaison between the orchestra and the conductor.”

Grant is a native San Diegan. “I studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I started with the San Diego Symphony in 1969 in the first-violin section. I was in high school. I auditioned and got a contract. Then I went away to school after two years of playing in the orchestra.”

“Do you know most of the people in the orchestra?”

“You could say we’re one big happy family.” He smiles, maybe ironically. “One big happy dysfunctional family.” Now he laughs.

“Are there personality conflicts? Prima donnas? Fascists?”

“Oh yeah, every orchestra has prima donnas. Every orchestra has someone who will practice backstage during breaks in the rehearsal, all their favorite pieces. Or they might be practicing whatever the soloist is playing that week” He’s laughing again, “Which is sometimes in bad taste, but they do it anyway. You’ve got all types of personalities. Sometimes their personalities reflect their instruments, and sometimes they don’t.

“There are some other responsibilities I have. Eye contact is big. I watch the other string principals so that we’re always in sync. And then also if the winds or brass have a solo, I follow them, look over and try to get eye contact. Also entrances are a big responsibility for the concertmaster. Bringing the violins in. I have to make sure that my entrances are right.”

“How do you do that? How do you cue them?”

“Well, okay. This is how I do it. I have a system. It’s pretty methodical. It might sound boring, but it works. In a fast tempo, two bars before our entrance and one bar in a slow tempo, I put my violin up in the air. Right at the beginning of that second bar, and that’s when we come in, okay? If somebody disagrees with me, they’ll look at me, and I’ll know they’re saying, ‘You’re wrong.’ And I’ll reconsider. But I’m supposed to be right. The buck stops here.”

“That decision has to be made pretty fast, I would think.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s fast, but at least we have a little lead-time to think about it. Two beats before we come in, I give a three...four...with my right arm, the bow arm, just before we come in. Then also there are different signals I give to the strings. For instance, if I think that we’re playing too loud, I’ll raise my violin up, and I’ll demonstrate the bow distribution that I think is correct. In other words, everybody should not only have the bow going the same direction, but they should also be playing with the same amount of bow and the same speed of bow. At the same sounding point, okay? So if I think everybody is too loud, I’ll stand up and raise my violin so everyone can see me over the tops of their stands, and I will play with very little bow at the point. That’s the signal that everybody has to drop it.

“If there’s a new bowing? I want to change a bowing? I do the same thing. I raise my violin up and turn back toward the section while we’re playing, and I’ll demonstrate the bowing. When they see the violin go up, they know ‘He has something he wants to let us know about.’ Then they’ll see the bowing. I don’t have to actually tell anybody anything.”

“So the musicians have to pay as much attention to you as to the conductor.”

“Right. Hopefully. And they do. They’re very responsive, and we have a good working relationship. If I screw up, I turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry guys, I messed up.’ And they appreciate that, that if I screw up I’ll admit it. Some people are, like, ‘I didn’t do it, he did it!’” Grant laughs heartily. This behavior is funnier to him, obviously, than annoying.

“Do you do anything else besides music? This is your full-time career, I guess.” The idea is so idyllic to me it is hard to picture. Most rock musicians I’ve played with had to deliver pizzas or work in an auto-parts store during the day.

“You mean am I a day-trader on the side or something? No, this is what I do for a living. I’ve never done anything else. I go to Hollywood once in a while and do recording sessions for movies and things like that.”

“Oh, yeah? What movies did you do?”

“Okay, whooo...” Grant leans forward, folds his hand under his chin, and squints into the past. “What movies did I do solos for?” He is asking the far wall of the trailer. After a few moments, I imagine Grant visualizing a parade of mediocre films with which he’d rather not be linked. Though that might not be it at all. “Is it okay if we don’t go with that?”

“Sure. What’s your favorite kind of stuff to perform?”

Grant agonizes over this one as well. He repeats the question. “I like all kinds of music. There are very few kinds of music I don’t like. I’ll get in my car, I’ll put on some rock music or bebop.”

“Yeah? What kind of rock music would you put on?”

Again he repeats the question verbatim, quietly, as if to an imaginary consultant. He is squinting again as if I’m going to be giving him a test score. “I’m sort of hesitant to give favorites because...maybe if I haven’t played a piece for a long time, maybe 20 years, and I try it out and I play it again, then that’s my favorite piece. It brings back memories. Also, the immediacy and the beauty of it is something I relearn and relive. It becomes special.”

“Okay,” I try another approach. “Without thinking, who do you love? Who springs to mind?”

“Performers? Composers?”

“Whatever, don’t even think.”

He starts thinking. “What comes to my mind?” Again with the trailer wall. “You mean, like, ‘Man, I love that’? Hmmm...”

“Too late. You’re thinking about it.”

“There’s just so much.” Grant is an engaging and amenable fellow. He has forgotten more about music than I have ever learned, yet I get the feeling he thinks his answers might not be interesting enough. “I’m pretty eclectic. It’s hard for me to choose. In a way it’s sort of elitism to say I like this over that. It’s a form of elitism, isn’t it?” He has a kind of pleading look as he turns to me. I want to say, “Relax, this isn’t Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. ”

“Well, I guess.” I just agree with him. He may be right after all.

“I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.”

All right, one more shot. “If you were to go home right now, pick up your violin, what would you be inclined to play?

“Well, I’m working on some solo pieces right now, so I would be playing those. Like there’s one by Paganini I’ve been working on called Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento — In My Heart, I Don’t Feel Anymore. I guess Paganini didn’t have an analyst. It’s an encore showpiece. It shows off what the violin can do. It’s probably the most impressive violin encore piece apart from ‘God Save the Queen,’ which Paganini also wrote. That’s a little more difficult.

“I do have a special affinity for the love music from Tristan and Isolde by Wagner. That piece was a transition from tonality to atonality in the history of music. It has one of the most heart-wrenching climaxes at the very top. The strings come in and they just go higher and higher, and they get way up in the stratosphere. Then there’s this pinnacle of feeling.” Grant is smiling, hearing it in his head.

Later I would put on Act III of a five-record set from a 1952 recording — LPs of the opera a friend found at the Athenaeum in La Jolla. Act III contains the music Grant is referring to. As usual, Wagner makes me a little seasick. I get that feeling I’m in the engine room of a small craft on high seas, getting a bit intoxicated on diesel fumes and queasy from the ocean’s tossing. I can see how this stuff would be exhilarating to perform, however.

Meanwhile, back in the trailer: “So you’re working on Gershwin now.”

“Right. We’re doing some songs and some orchestral pieces and ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ ‘American in Paris.’ A lot of big favorites. I did a tour of the United States for the Gershwin Centennial with Frank Sinatra, Jr. We did a ten-city U.S. tour a few years ago when this orchestra wasn’t performing. We picked up musicians at all the different locals [unions] and filled out the orchestra. Sinatra Jr. was very easy to work with, a very nice guy. He was always very fastidious about taking care of the musicians. Whatever the musicians wanted, he’d take care of it. We did New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Nashville, San Francisco, Los Angeles...”

“Is there any kind of music that just annoys you? Like rap or hip-hop?” I spring this on him out of nowhere trying to get a knee-jerk response.

“Yeah, rap, I don’t even understand the words half the time.... I don’t want to sound elitist.”

Whatever. “How did you feel when the symphony went broke and all its members had to find work elsewhere? Did you feel bitter about San Diego? That the cultural climate here could be so feeble that that could happen?”

His response is political: “I think the symphony is enjoying a renaissance. Jung-Ho Pak, our conductor, almost single-handedly brought us back. He’s been an enormous influence on us. He has wonderfully innovative ideas like having the large screen [monitors] out there for the San Diego Pops. He does so many things so well. He’s also a great PR man. He’s gone out into the community. He’s been a go-between, between us and the rest of San Diego. He’s given a lot of his time. We’ve never had a conductor have that kind of commitment to San Diego before. It’s wonderful. But was I upset with San Diego? Mmm... I’ve learned to be pretty philosophical about it That wasn’t the first time we’ve had Financial trouble. I really do think that’s a thing of the past now. We’re moving past that. San Diego generally is enjoying a resurgence, a bit of a renaissance itself, and I think the future’s bright. We have so many businesses moving here. I think the orchestra is improving. I’m often astounded at the level of our playing. These people have been so dedicated. They’ve given, basically, their lives to play in this orchestra. A lot of other orchestras pay a lot more money. We’ve had some people go to some of the best orchestras in the country: Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh. But there are a lot of us who love living in San Diego too. I grew up here.”

Grant’s family came to San Diego in the early 1900s. “We had property in the desert, in the mountains, a home here in San Diego. So when I was a kid I got in the habit of having a mountain environment, a desert environment, and living in the city at the same time. It’s a pretty great lifestyle.”

“Was there music around your house when you were a little kid?”

“Oh, yeah,” Grant pauses. Someone has just “peeled out” of the parking lot with squealing rubber, undoubtedly leaving a “boss patch,” as we used to call it in Chicago. I figure it has to be one of the percussionists. Drummers are always nuts. Grant resumes after a moment. “My mother was a cellist, my uncle played the violin, my dad went to San Diego High School, like I did, and he played in Nino Marcelli’s band. Marcelli was the founder of the San Diego Symphony, first conductor.”

“How about records around the house?”

“My mother played Don Juan a lot. And the Dvorák Cello Concerto — since she was a cellist. This tone poem by Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel, ‘Merry Pranks.’ We had LPs of Heifetz, you know....”

As for what’s coming this next symphony season, Grant is excited about “The Lightbulb Series.” He explains: “That’s the new series that Jung-Ho Pak brought. It’s ‘lightbulb,’ as in fresh new ideas and how to view music and listen to music. We’re going to do Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 5’ and some other works.”

After the tape recorder is off, though no one said anything about “off the record,” Grant expresses his love of Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Vivaldi. “I like all the old Italians like Corelli, Tartini, Frescobaldi. Great old music, the rococo period and late baroque.” He might have been talking about pasta for all I knew. “Also Handel’s Opus No. 6 Concerto Grossi. You know that piece?”

“No. So that’s the kind of thing you might put on at home to relax?”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t put on Beethoven to relax.”

I almost said, “Of course not,” and scoffed, just to appear less musically moronic. “Maybe Nardini or Locatelli,” he added. Again I had to resist the temptation to say, “Sounds delicious.”

In the parking lot on the way out, Grant again confesses that he really does love a lot of Wagner. “But maybe you shouldn’t say that,” he cautions.

“Why? Because Hitler was a fan? That’s not Wagner’s fault.”

“Okay,” he said.

Later, my friend, the one who got me the Tristan and Isolde LP set, told me, “Wagner himself was a known anti-Semite.” I didn’t know that. I only knew he had some wacky fans like Hitler and Nietzsche — and more benevolent cases like George Bernard Shaw. But it struck me as wrong that anyone should have to apologize for his or her love of any artist’s work, so I decided to look into it.

In Anthony Burgess’s book One Man’s Chorus, he has an essay on The Ring by Wagner. Burgess, primarily a novelist, author of A Clockwork Orange, was also a composer. Turns out Burgess was a Wagner enthusiast and clears up this anti-Semite business.

“The Nazis have done a lot of harm to Wagner, exaggerating an anti-Semitism which was nothing more than resentment at the success of Meyerbeer, who just happened to be a Jew, and seeing in his transformation of the Nibelung myth the glorification of the Aryan.”

I don’t know if Wagner’s off the hook or what the Nibelung myth is (I’m looking into it), but Wagner still makes me seasick.

— John Brizzolara

John Brizzolara’s novels include Wirecutter and Empire’s Horizon. In 1997 he received the National Conference Media Award for Journalism.

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