Fiddler’s Folly 

Tongues are wagging about the violinist the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has been forced to reinstate

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: It’s been a frenetic year for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, what with all the hoopla over the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center and excitement about celebrity music advisor Leonard Slatkin.

It’s been a frenetic year for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, what with all the hoopla over the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center and excitement about celebrity music advisor Leonard Slatkin. Lost in the din, however, has been the fate of the ensemble’s most prominent string player.

Mary Kathryn Vanosdale, the NSO’s longtime concertmaster, was forced to sit out the 2006-07 season because of an internal dispute. NSO President Alan Valentine declines to elaborate on the nature of the disagreement but confirms that Vanosdale had recently prevailed in a private arbitration case, and so she will reassume her old post as head of the first violin section starting in September.

“We had an internal dispute, and I’m not at liberty to discuss the details,” says Valentine. “But we also have a master agreement with our musicians that’s designed to handle situations like this, and we went through the process and have faith that the process worked. Now we’re just looking forward to moving on. Beyond that, I can’t say anything else.”

That’s hardly surprising, since these days there seems to be about as much secrecy inside the Schermerhorn as there is in one of George Bush’s Iraq strategy sessions. No one either in the NSO administration or the orchestra is willing to say anything publicly about the Vanosdale case. “I’ve played with her for a long time and am too close to her to feel comfortable saying anything,” says one NSO player.

Privately, though, many musicians are talking, gossiping and speculating like crazy over the details of the Vanosdale case. And most seem to agree that Vanosdale’s dispute originates with an even more secret endeavor inside the Schermerhorn—the search for a new music director.

“I think she leaked something about the music director search,” says one musician. “She took a stand against the choice of a new music director that wasn’t popular,” says another.

For the moment, Vanosdale isn’t clarifying matters and didn’t return phone calls for this story. But it stands to reason that her problems may stem from the music director search, which has been ongoing since the death of former music director Kenneth Schermerhorn in April 2005.

As concertmaster, Vanosdale was one of six musicians elected to serve on the NSO’s 12-member music director search committee. Her advice would have been sought because of her long tenure: she’s been a violinist with the symphony since 1984 and concertmaster since 1988. More importantly, though, she occupies a position of real authority.

The concertmaster is arguably the most important (and powerful) position in the orchestra after the music director. (In fact, in Europe the post is usually just referred to as leader.)

It’s the concertmaster who walks onstage at the start of every concert to tune the orchestra. As head of the first violins, the concertmaster also plays all of the violin solos. And she decides what bowing the violin section will use, which helps the orchestra establish its signature sound—you can usually count on the best concertmasters to create a lustrous glow.

Concertmasters aren’t indispensable, though, at least not when they come into conflict with an orchestra’s search for a new music director. Smaller orchestras are sometimes open about the process—they don’t have as much to lose.

But large and even midsize orchestras (which would include the NSO) are usually secretive about their searches to the point of Stalinlike paranoia. They have a lot at stake in these high-priced courtships, and they don’t want anyone—musicians, music director candidates and especially competing orchestras—to know their next move.

“It’s like a game of chess,” Valentine admits.

Vanosdale may have lost the first round of this match. But when she takes her seat at the head of the violin section for the orchestra’s gala concert on Sept. 8, it may be Vanosdale declaring checkmate.

Says one player: “It’s been a rough year, but we’re glad to have her back.”

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