Sarah Oates: the orchestra feels really safe if they can trust the concertmaster

Sarah Oates is an associate concertmaster with the Philharmonia Orchestra (London, UK), holding this position since 2013. Sarah’s education began in her native South Africa with Louis van der Watt. At the age of fifteen she won a scholarship to study with Yossi Zivoni at the Purcell School in London, then at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and with Pinchas Zukerman at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. As the associate concertmaster of the Philharmonia Orchestra she performs regularly in the great concert halls of Europe and around the world, with the pre-eminent conductors of our time. She is a guest concertmaster with other world class orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. As soloist Sarah has enjoyed appearances with Holland Symfonia, the Antwerp Symphony orchestra, Cape Town Philharmonic and the Natal Philharmonic. With the Devich trio Sarah recorded four CD’s with Challenge Records to international critical acclaim. Her latest CD was released in January 2020 with chamber music of Ernest Chausson, with the Philharmonia Chamber Players.

We met with Sarah after one of Philharmonia Orchestra recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios. We talked about her path to becoming a professional violinist, her work with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the duties of a concertmaster in a big collective of instrumentalists, the daily and touring life of a modern professional musician, and finally – about Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and his relationship with the orchestra.

Sarah, can you describe your pathway to music, some moments in your childhood and teenage years that led you to it?

The first thing I remember is that I was given a violin and it just smelt so exciting – the smell was coming from wood. I had never touched something that was handmade and from wood – so it was just a physical feeling of it that I really liked. Apart from the music, just the physics of this amazing thing – the instrument – caught me, so I was already interested. I have to say that my first teacher had this amazing ability to inspire with what he did – he not only loved music, but he also loved literature and all sorts of art, while I did not get much of it from my home. Everytime I took a lesson he would give me books to read and recordings to listen to, so it was an exciting other world that I was tapping into. I was living in South Africa, and even as a child I was feeling stuck on the edge of this continent which was very separated from all those things that I was learning. So studying music and arts was additionally exciting, as I was entering into another world while learning all these things I didn’t know about, and this door was gradually opening for me.

How did your perception of music differ from the way you interacted with all other arts? Did you get emotional connection, were there some images in your head? What processes went inside your head?

It was an instinctive emotional reaction, but also, as I have said, physical one – I liked the feeling of creation of the sound. Separated from the music itself, I just liked making the sound. I also played the piano, but I didn’t like it, because at the piano it was just pushing back, not physically making a sound. And music itself formed a much bigger emotional connection in me than other forms of art at that stage. It might have also been the influence of people around me. When I was little, I started playing in a children’s chamber orchestra, and there was something very nice about playing together: we became very close friends, we did camps together and it was the most exciting thing one could imagine and it was all connected to music.

I am surprised at how you describe these first experiences – nothing about pressure or hard work, contrary to what musicians in Russia usually remember about their lessons in music schools. You describe your learning years as full of joy, but were there challenges, technical or psychological?

Of course, I did work hard, but not very much so (laughs). It was mainly because I liked it. And as I child I remember my mother knew that if she would force me to practice, I would not obey, so she had her way of persuading me to start practicing. I would be in the garden playing, and she would take one of my favourite pieces of music and start playing it inside – deliberately loudly. Years later she told me that she would notice that I was listening, and then half an hour later I would come in and say: «I am just gonna play the violin» (laughs).

Did you ever improvise?

No, I think I never did – my teacher never sent me down that route. And now my daughter who is 12 years old is playing the guitar, and I am encouraging her to do that because I myself did not have it as a child, and if you do not have it then, it is difficult to start as an adult.

What composers have influenced you? Did you have your favourites or did you just open up to the whole classical repertoire?

It is difficult to say. When I was a child, my teacher was very much into baroque and early romantic music, so I was very influenced by that. I can’t really say that I have found a particular path afterwards. In Philharmonia we do a lot of the Great Romantics, but also with Esa-Pekka [Salonen] we do a lot of interesting stuff from the 20th century like Stravinsky and others. So I guess I can’t really say that I have my preferences. As a professional musician, you do different things every day.

What are the technicalities of playing a violin? Do you have to practice several hours a day? What are the physical challenges?

The most challenging thing that you have to overcome is that it is very asymmetric, while the body doesn’t like to be that way. Your spine is often twisted, your neck is too, and that is just not optimal for humans as we are designed to be symmetrical. So it is very important to find a way of playing where you don’t disrupt your spine or muscles, and find your physical balance, because lack of it can cause you a lot of pain later in life. There are also some exercises you can do: for instance, I sometimes go to the Alexander Technique sessions which is a very good, non-invasive way of resetting your muscles, and when I do that, I take my violin with me. The technique is a gentle manipulation to make you aware of the ways you usually use your body. So this is what I do nowadays. As a child I played, but not too much, it was quite relaxed. It was only when I was 16 and came to London that I started intensive work. I was doing 5 hours a day, if I could, usually between 3 and 5. In my education I first went to Purcell School of Music to finish my A-levels and then I went to Manchester to the Royal Northern College of Music, and then I went to New York and studied for two years in Manhattan School of Music. Interestingly, my childhood heroes were Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman – those were my two big Gods, and my teacher loved them – and later I studied with Zuckerman in New York.

It is really exciting – could you describe that feeling of learning from a master who had already become your hero. How did you learn from him?

It was difficult actually, as he has a very particular style which I loved, but it was not mine. He had a certain concept of sound production which was also a little different to mine, so I learned his too, but when I left after studying for two years I found my own way which was different. Things I enjoyed most about studying with him was when he was just playing, because just standing next to somebody who plays so incredibly instinctively gives you a lot… As soon as he starts playing, it is like the instinct takes over. So from this example I learned that although you do intellectual work when you play the violin, as soon as you start, you have to tap into some instinctive things in order to really produce music of high level.

Do you mean to say that musicianship for an instrumentalist is based less on the intellect but rather on instinct?

It is the combination. Firstly, you need a very technical basis so that everything is in order – it is a little bit like a sport in this sense, because you need basic skills and they need to be finely honed and kept up. In that sense it is very much like a sport. And when you are playing your concerto, you need to know the score and understand the structure of the piece, the harmony and what is happening in it. But after that, when you are actually playing, you need to tap into some instinctive force, otherwise it becomes too dry. But you need all those things together, as if it is just instinct without any basis, there would be no outcome. If I am leading the orchestra, that is sitting in the chair of the concertmaster, I would also look into the orchestral score. It is not that I need to know what exactly other instruments are doing, but you learn the important places in the score that you will need to listen for.

Could you describe what exactly the function of concertmaster is, apart from what we see at concerts: appearing before the conductor and giving a sign for the orchestra to start tuning?

(Laughs) It is a very communicative role, especially during rehearsals. You are a contact point between the conductor and the orchestra. If there is something they don’t like and they want to fix it, they might not address the specific instrumentalist but say to you instead: «I want it like this» and then you reply: «Ok, in order to get it like that we can play with different bowing», so you are providing technical solutions. Also, the orchestra is always interpreting the beat of the conductor. We never play on the beat, we are always playing a little behind, whether it is a tiny fraction or a little bit more. If you play on the beat, there is no space to find each other. It is a strange situation where everybody is sligthly behind the conductor, but you need somebody to decide exactly how far it would be. So the concertmaster normally sets the pace of this interpretation of the conductor’s beat. And besides that, it is not so much what you say but also how you play. You may show the first violins or the string section or the entire orchestra that you want a hard accent or a gentle accent, you also can indicate to them the way you want to shape the music above what the conductor might say. Everybody is keeping your eye on you for that reason. And also sometimes you can have a bad conductor or a conductor that makes mistakes – if that happens, it is fine, everybody just immediately follows the concertmaster. So the orchestra feels really safe if they can trust the concertmaster. It is wonderful when there is a great conductor in front of them, but the orchestra feels truly safe when they know that if anything goes wrong they can just quickly look at their concertmaster and find their whereabouts.

How is one promoted or appointed to this position?

It is through auditions. Every position has a special audition. Among first violins you normally have one or two concertmasters, then two associate concermasters and maybe an assistant one, and then the rest of the section are rank-and-file musicians and they rotate. All those positions would be advertised accordingly, and the requirements for the title positions are higher.

Could you talk about your path to joining the Philharmonia Orchestra?

I was living in Holland and was a concertmaster of the Ballet Orchestra in Amsterdam which was a very nice job. Then in 2013 a new conservative government came in and decided to cut the state subsidies, while the orchestras were hit particularly badly. My orchestra had a half of its subsidy reduced, so they had to fire a certain number of people, and the way they did it was by addressing people on every level, including my position, as there were also other concertmasters and they have been there longer than me. So they had to follow legal procedures – according to level, age, amount of years people had spent in the orchestra – and they applied this formula to decide on who should go and who should stay. So I realized that I would lose my job and I contacted somebody I knew in London and they said: «We are looking for the second concertmaster for the Philharmonia, why don’t you come and play and see if you like it». So I came and played and it was a very nice click – I liked the orchestra, they liked me – and so after six months or a year of coming as a guest they offered me an audition. I auditioned, had a trial year, and then I was offered a contract. They have to do it in this way, as you cannot just appoint people you know (laughs).

Could you describe the specifics of Philharmonia as an orchestra? What is its character?

On musical level, the thing that I am always impressed with most is the sound. Somehow the sound is always top priority, and and it is very, very beautiful. It has some old-fashioned tinge to it, it is very difficult to describe. May be the historic sound has been passed along, may be there has been a certain ideal specific for the orchestra, but the sound that people are looking for here is the one that matches mine naturally. Sometimes I go to other orchestras where they also have a beautiful sound, but they have a different ideal one, while here the sound matches what I look for. Here I mean both the strings section sound and the whole orchestra sound. And also it is a very hard-working orchestra, we have an intense pace and high pressure, but people don’t complain but just turn up and play, and I really like this attitude (laughs).

Do you have to practice at home or are rehearsal sessions enough to create this ideal sound?

Tomorrow for instance I have a free morning and an afternoon rehearsal before the concert, and in that time I will have to look at the programme for the following day. Tonight I will take rest, as I we have been recording for hours – you have to be careful.

What are the main activities of orchestral musicians?

We have our Principal Conductor – Esa-Pekka Salonen, our Principal Guest Conductors and a number of other conductors whom we have relationships with. There are a number of these conductors that we see every year and we like them, so they come for two or three concerts annually. We have orchestra meetings, and names of conductors would be mentioned there. People could express their wishes of seeing this or that person more, or mention that they enjoyed somebody less, and also new names could be suggested based on the experiences of players who had worked with them elsewhere. There is an element of our opinion voiced at those meetings, but at the same time it is a commercial business, so decisions are also influenced by this factor. We have our rehearsal schedule at Henry Wood Hall, then general rehearsals in the Royal Festival Hall. We are also asked and always happy to do the recordings for movies or BBC documentaries. We always try to fit it in other work as it always comes late in the schedule, but it earns very well. We try to develop relationships with some movie composers like Brian Tyler – they could go to other orchestras but you try to have a special place in their minds so that they approach your orchestra and not another one. It is for this reason everybody is remarkably well-behaved in recording studios (laughs).

Could you describe the Philharmonia Orchestra tours?

We usually go to Japan and the USA once in two years, and for me those are the highlights, because normally you play the best music in great halls with great conductors in good locations. Sometimes it is really hard being on tour, as you have to be up at 2 or 3am, then you go to the airport, you have your flight, arrive to the hotel, dump your bag, go straight to the concert hall for the rehearsal and then have a concert in the evening.

Do tours become the channels for musical development or do they mostly showcase your London achievements?

I think that musically they are indeed musically rewarding because in London we generally play a programme only once or twice, while on tour we could play it five times and it is a luxury. You can really get a little deeper into it. In every new location you have a rehearsal and you are refining things, and this is also a nice process. On tour we try to bring in our highest capacities, and we want them to ask us to come back – it is very important for the orchestra – so the level is generally very high.

Are American and Asian audiences different from the European ones?

In Asia we often feel like movie or pop stars and we love it (laughs). In America places differ, you would have different audiences in Los Angeles or New York. If you go to Germany, the audiences usually know what they are about to hear. They have good musical education in schools, so people have general knowledge of the programme, even if you have to change some pieces of it at the last moment. They would be those connoisseurs coming to hear particular pieces – probably these are the specifics of European audiences, if I could put it broadly.

Could you describe projects devised by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the 2010s: The City of Lights, Myths and Rituals, Weimar Berlin? Is it important to have a year in a certain package?

It was a luxury for us to play things like this because often you are catering to what the audience wants, and in these productions the initiative comes from us as we play what we think they should hear. We try to bring something new that they would not otherwise expect whereas normally you think about a certain location and try to guess what the local public would like. These projects are our opportunity to enlighten the public and offer some new things or new connections between pieces, as these projects highlight artistic connections that people might have not thought about before. But these thematic programs are really expensive, they always have a loss in revenues. Here you have to trust a group of artists developing those programmes – like Esa-Pekka and his collaborators – that what they are bringing really has value. It is very easy to ask some dancers to do movements along the music, it could have little value. So if our artistic collaborators really know what they are doing and everything falls into place, then it is fantastic.

Could you desribe the Virtual Reality projects? Were they intended for younger audiences? What was their innovative element?

When you hear the reaction of people who have experienced Virtual Orchestra or other similar projects, I do believe they have a real impact, as people find them really interesting. It is so important to have an online presence nowadays, to diversify the content, and I think we are able to achieve it. I loved the collaboration we did with NASA, The Golden Record where recorded music was sent on Voyager One and more recently on Voyager Two. These projects really bring music to new audiences – the ones who had never been to a concert before. It is nice to present something that helps people not to be intimidated by their lack of knowledge, and it is exciting to find new innovative ways to bring music closer to them – and Virtual Reality seems to be one of them.

Sarah Oates playing in Philharmonia Orchestra. Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

What is the role of Philharmonia pre-concert events? Do they serve as tasters of what is to come? What do Philharmonia Chamber players do?

Well, I can tell you why we do it. It is so nice to play with your colleagues on a chamber level and feel the connection, it is a much more intimate way of playing, and it is also very scary, as all your colleagues can be present in the hall. So we always rehearse a lot when we do it to make sure we are well prepared. And I think people are enjoying it, there are big numbers of them coming. For these concerts any players of the Orchestra can take the initiative and offer the programme, and then the Chamber Music Committee chooses who plays it – according to the chosen repertoire. Not everybody wants to, but many people do, and so it means that you end up with interesting programmes, as you have to offer something really valuable. There are also New Music Series that introduce composers of the 21st century to the public.

Esa-Pekka Salonen likes to say about Philharmonia that its specific sound is transmitted by a certain osmosis from generation to generation. He always mentions seeing young players quickly adopting the Philharmonia’s trademark sound and compares the orchestra to a shoal of fish that moves in the ocean. Do you feel this inner, unseen connection?

Yes, we do feel it, but you have to remember that we are selecting those who come to the orchestra. It is very important to us that new people show sensitivity to our sound. They don’t have to play immediately in the sound that we like or immediately have enough radar and listen where to go to – like fish do – but you are looking for people that are aware and who can show that they might be able to develop into this direction. You have new people coming in and you can easily tell if one is sensitive to these things. If they start to adapt in the right way, then we tend to choose them for permanent positions.

But is the conductor really the first among equals or does he or she have a special position?

I think that if we didn’t have great conductors coming to work with us, we would not have been able to maintain the musical level – it just would have been impossible. At the same time sometimes we have people who are not great, but we manage to find each other and produce something decent. However, I don’t think that we could do it on a weekly basis if we didn’t have the conductors of the highest level. But then it is almost impossible to say what this magic thing is – why some conductors can inspire and others cannot. If you look at the words they say during rehearsals written down on a piece of paper, it would not be so special compared to what other people say.

So does the communication happen non-verbally?

Yes, and very much so. A great conductor comes in and says something, and then everything fits together and it works, while the thing they said was not so special. Some people talk more, others talk less, it is difficult to put your finger on what they are doing exactly to find the magic.

What is special about Esa-Pekka Salonen as a conductor? He has a huge international reputation and historic connection with the orchestra after his famous jump-in appearance with Mahler’s Third Symphony in 1983. What qualities single him out for musicans of Philhamornia?

Firsly, I have to say I have never seen somebody who has been coming to the same orchestra for twenty years still having the same respect and personal connection from the whole orchestra. It just doesn’t happen. Normally the cycle would be that somebody would be coming for 4 or 5 years, and by the end of that period everybody would hate them and they would leave (laughs). This is the general rule. But I have never been in an orchestra where everybody is so unanimously respectful of the Principal Conductor. It has never happened to me – not once – and I have visited many orchestras as a guest. He has an amazing ability with people. One of the key things is that he really trusts the musicians and he respects them. He somehow non-verbally gives you the sense that he respects you as a musician and he trusts what you are doing on stage. He is willing to give control, he is not a control freak. As a little example: a thing or another can go wrong in a rehearsal. He would be totally unconcerned about that, you can see that he has full trust that in the concert everything will be fine. He somehow encourages this trust, and so we all trust each other very much. If the person on the top is not trusting you, you lose faith. Those are the decisions made in split seconds in concerts, and you need to have a lot of confidence to do that. He has an ability of very easily setting this feeling of confidence. I think it is very, very important.

Also, he is such an intellectual musician. There is always depth to what he is offering. If he makes a decision about something, then you know that he has studied it and knows what he is doing, and has reasons for everything that he is suggesting. So even if personally you might think that you don’t like the tempo he is taking, or how he chooses to do this particular bit, as you do know that he has so much grounding and really knows what he is doing, people trust him.

Does he share some of his research on pieces with you during rehearsals?

Yes, he does. Minimally, every now and then. People don’t like when somebody talks too much, but sometimes he would just make a pause and say: «I thought long and hard about what to do here, and then I discovered this, and so after all those years I think the best way to interpret it would be in this way – and that is the reason why». You gradually pick up on those things.

What is his trademark behaviour during the Philharmonia concerts?

He is unshakeable, he hardly ever makes mistakes. Things very rarely go wrong in his concerts. He can do the most difficult programme night after night, it would not be a problem. In complex music most conductors would do an occasional error, and he just doesn’t. He has no trouble with complexity in scores at all. There is this mutual respect in concert, because we know that if we need something, we look up and he gives it. He is rhythmically very clear – he has very clear hands – so in important moments he will be very, very precise, and then in the moments when we don’t need precision, he lets us play. He is not micro-managing us, he is very much the big picture, and then at key moments he really does show and we get the extra energy from him then. For instance, he is great at the ending of any piece – he can always make it a huge climax, somehow his energy comes in exactly the right flow, being built up till that moment, and then the climax is enormous. It is all about the feeling of the big structure and knowing the scale of a particular work. He is very intellectual in his approach and always thinks about the structure of the piece. As he is a composer himself, it is very important to him. This is the way of forming and creating the energy of the performance. He has the great way of controlling its flow over the time, so that you always feel that you have given a good performance. And on tour, when we have a very rough travelling schedule, he does that, too – he never gives less energy due to difficult travelling arrangements, it is always one hundred percent whatever the tour pressures and time constraints are.