Classical Music / Interview

Jean-Sébastien Roy: Concertmaster (Part II)

Welcome to the second half of my interview with CSO Concertmaster, Jean-Sébastien Roy. Today I thought we’d start with a bit of Symphony 101: what’s a concertmaster?

According to Merriam-Webster,

con·cert·mas·ter    noun \ˈkän(t)-sərt-ˌmas-tər\

: a musician who is the leading violin player and the assistant conductor of an orchestra

To gain a better appreciation of this position, know this: If you’re good enough to be in a Symphony orchestra – any instrument, any position – then you’re really good.

Growing up, one of my band directors told us this:

It’s really hard to get into a Symphony. You have to be incredibly talented but once you’re in, you’re in for life. So if you’re not already in an orchestra, someone has to either resign or die for there to be an opening.

Competition is fierce and raw talent alone won’t be enough when you’re auditioning with the other musicians at that level who want it just as badly as you do

WQXR radio out of New York posted an article about auditions which taught me this:

In the past several decades, orchestral auditions have only gotten more competitive. A section position for a major orchestra might have 200-300 applicants, and then 100 will be invited to actually audition,

said Jonathan Mednick, CEO of, an orchestra job posting website. Available jobs have decreased as well, he said.

“Three years ago, we were averaging 300 plus jobs per month, and recently we averaged about 120.”

So with that in mind, imagine how a musician feels when making it into a top-notch, professional orchestra. Now imagine being that top-notch professional orchestra’s 1st chair violin.

That’s your Concertmaster.

JSR Close up

Jean-Sébastien Roy

What additional responsibilities do you have with the CSO as our Concertmaster?  The bowings for the music, though most music already have them marked, so I just make sure it all makes sense.

Simply put, a Concertmaster is the 2nd highest ranking member of the orchestra behind the conductor. The conductor always shakes the hand of the concertmaster. The soloist always shakes the hand of the conductor – and the concertmaster.

The concertmaster is the last one on stage before a performance and is responsible for making sure the musicians on stage are all in tune. Once the orchestra has a chance to tune to the concertmaster, he (or she!) then takes the first seat to the left of the conductor, who then joins the musicians on stage and begins the concert.

To give you an idea of how busy he is, last month Jean-Sébastien met with me for this interview on a Tuesday, worked as a coach to the youth orchestra during a rehearsal (Dvorak’s New World and Saint-Saëns) on Wednesday and then on Thursday attended a fundraising dinner. Jean-Sébastien has also played for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra women’s organization lunches and occasionally meets with various people (donors) after concerts.

Smiling, he told me that,

They want me to do some of everything!

He went on to say, that he’s “…here with a one-year contract, so it’s a bit different than a full-time concertmaster, but with a Music Director leaving, they don’t want to name a permanent concertmaster until the new guy is here.”

The CSO is currently conducting its search for a new music director to succeed our current Maestro Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

How soon before a performance do you get your music? 2-3 weeks in advance, but if you have another performance, you might not have a chance to look at it. It’s difficulty vs. how well I already know it. Rite of Spring (with the Montreal Symphony) – it was so well-written, so smart, that I sight read it and performed on only a couple rehearsals.

It’s so hard to find well-written music. Music can be complicated, but it’s so hard to perform.  Stravinsky was complicated, but easier to perform.

What are your thoughts on leadership within an orchestra: (Leadership is) important, but (sometimes) extremely tricky. It’s a group of very talented and highly trained musicians. You must lead them in a very respectful way. It’s tough from the music director’s point of view. You need someone to make a decision (we’ll do it “this way” or “that way”) but you have to do it in a way to respect the quality of playing, backgrounds, etc.

Where do you see the CSO in 3-5 years? I see a lot of motivation in both the administration and the musicians. It’s had a rough patch – they’ve been recovering for 3-4 years. They’re back in good shape, so they can grow again and make it better than what it was before. A lot of it hinges on who is chosen as the music director – with good chemistry with the musicians, the administration and the community, you can just make miracles. I hope we’ll get lucky and get a great person and a great musician. I hope it will get attention again in the community.

For what do you think the CSO will be known? Any particular specialty? Hard to say. With Maestro Zeitouni, it would be vocals since he is amazing with singers. It all depends on the next Music Director.

Why aren’t more soloists pulled from the orchestra itself?

What sells is a soloist.

Jean-Sébastien explained to me how typically speaking, a concertmaster will play one solo per year but, in his case, with an already planned out schedule and a one-year contract put together only a couple months prior to the start of the season, it wasn’t possible to add a solo for him this year.

Speaking of solos, what happens if you break a string?

If something breaks, it’s usually the E-string. If the soloist breaks a string, he can take the Concertmaster’s violin who takes the associate concertmaster’s violin who, then doesn’t play. If I change a string, I need to play about 4-5 hours before it settles in tune. (Will keep going flat) The E-string takes far less time. For that reason, I usually keep an extra string in my pocket when I go on stage.

JSR Sitting Violin

Jean-Sébastien Roy

With what other ensembles have you played? Edmonton Symphony, Boston Symphony – they have an incredible hall – very old – no technology, they just made it right. It’s amazing. (There are) amazing acoustics in a new symphony hall in Montreal – they have to rely on the technology.

McGill Chamber Orchestra – as Concertmaster – Nov 26, Bach music festival with six piano concerti – Nice festival, nice hall in an old church.

What do you say to people who don’t think they like classical music? What experience do they have that would make them think they don’t like it? Classical music has so much variety. You are bound to like at least something. I’m sure you can find something you like. There are a lot of preconceived notions. It’s challenging – depends on the community.

We come across as very serious so sometimes that doesn’t help.

It’s not easy, but classical music DOES sell.

Other than Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, what violin music should I have in my music library? Bach sonatas and partitas; Paganini Caprice; Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms violin concerti.

Here’s Jascha Heifetz playing Paganini Caprice


Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know our new concertmaster, Jean-Sébastien Roy. If you’d like to learn more about Jean-Sébastien and his music, visit his website and his bio on the CSO website. If you’d really like to get to know him, I recommend doing so through music.  Holiday pops concert is the first weekend in December and the next classical music concert is the 2nd weekend in January.  If you are new to the symphony, try it out. It’s really good and well – you may just discover you like it!

Thanks very much to Jean-Sébastien for granting me permission to use some of the photos off his own website.

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