In 1959, when Glenn Dicterow was just an 11-year-old boy, he made his solo debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now, after spending more than 30 years as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dicterow has made the decision to join the USC Thornton School of Music faculty.
And though Dicterow will not start teaching full time until 2013, he spoke Friday at the USC Fisher Museum of Art along with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Page about the relationship between artists and critics and a multitude of subjects regarding orchestra — ranging from the way the conductor flails his arms to the best concert halls in the world.
Though he received his first critique when he was 10 years old, Dicterow still “waits for those reviews.”
“I used to get up early and check,” he said. “But now at midnight I can check on the Internet to see what they wrote about me.”
As a soloist, Dicterow said he sometimes feels as if critics “dispatch the solo.” He said that someone will do an amazing 15-minute solo, but the critics won’t even mention it.
Page, who refers to himself as a “recovering music critic,” explained that sometimes the New York Philharmonic’s critiques might be tougher because they’re the most familiar to New York writers.
“You are in New York week after week,” Page explained to Dicterow. “Berlin comes in [to New York] and does their best show. L.A. comes in and does their best show. And Vienna comes in and does their best show.”
Other orchestras go to New York with their very best program. And sometimes, as Dicterow explained, his orchestra will play three concerts a week.
Dicterow also said the venue of the concert affects the sound quality.
“We play at Carnegie four or five times a year,” Dicterow said. “And when we do, we sound like a different orchestra.”
The conversation between the two suited gentlemen then turned into a discussion about the best and worst concert halls. They compared European versus American, big versus small and modern versus ancient.
After Dicterow settled on the concert halls he liked (which included a small one in Vienna and the Walt Disney Concert Hall), the two moved on to discuss conductors.
According to Page and Dicterow, conductors’ styles range from crazy motions that look like bank tellers making change to small motions where they barely move their fingers.
“It can be very physical,” Dicterow said. “But it’s something magical. I cannot describe what happens. And it’s not always how much you conduct but how little you conduct.”
Each conductor is vastly different from other conductors, he said. From their attitudes to techniques, every one has their own style.
“Conductors are stubborn and that’s why they’re conductors,” Dicterow said.
Dicterow also described how his duties as a concertmaster differ from that of a musician.
“You have to be a chameleon,” he said, drawing on the fact that conductors have to adapt to different situations.
A room full of eager musicians — some holding their massive instruments at their feet — clamored to ask questions of the speakers, such as career advice for an audition.
“The music directors want creativity and control,” Dicterow said. “They want someone who contributes, but doesn’t stand out and still enhances. Know the orchestra, know how they play and fit in.”
Switching to the subject of criticism, Page said he thinks the role of the critic has become tamer over the years.
Critics, according to Page, are aware that they are often the only person covering the premiere of a brand or new work, and thus, they want to be careful about “putting down something someone’s been working on for a long time.”
Similarly, Page said critics must be careful to address each piece of work, even if the review is not necessarily positive.
“Nothing upsets a filmmaker, a dancer or a musician more than getting no review,” Page said. “They’d rather have a bad review than no review at all.”
Regarding his side of the critiquing process, Page said every critic has received “one of those ‘obviously we were not at the same concert last night’” comments. He said this could often be credited to the difference in experience between the critic and the members of the audience.
For the critic, “it’s a very familiar piece, we’ve heard it a lot,” Page said. “Whereas you, who I imagine is still on the sunny side of 30, has not seen it so much. The test for the critic is to try to keep some enthusiasm left for some pieces.”
Jordan Koransky, who had Page as a professor for a class in spring 2012, said that he came to the presentation because he “always loves to hear [Page] speak.”
Also a violin player, Koransky said that he is a huge admirer of Dicterow.
“It’s great to hear about inside stories about the older generation of musicians and the great conductors and performers they worked with,” Koransky said.
Nathan Johnson, a graduate student at the Thornton School of Music, said he had a general interest in what Dicterow had to say about his life and his experiences with the New York Philharmonic.
“He said that the conductors are now collaborating with the musicians,” Johnson said. “It’s good to hear him say that that’s true at such a high level because that’s similar to what I’m experiencing now.”