Ask Brian Reagin, concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony, what he did during his summer vacation, and he will tell you about the amazing time he had taking his motorboat to work and giving three different concerts a week for more than two months with an all-star ensemble of symphony musicians.
Reagin wound up his 13th season this month as concertmaster of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the resident ensemble for the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State. The Chautauqua Institution offers lectures, classes, musical performances and recreation to several thousand visitors each summer.
The orchestra alone plays more than 20 concerts, each with a different program, in the period between late June and late August, and the repertoire for a summer season does not consist of lightweight pops-style programs.
Instead, selections often are meaty, challenging works that attract a full house to the huge outdoor amphitheater each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening. The orchestra began August, for example, with Mahler’s Second Symphony, “The Resurrection,” with soloists and members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus. Reagin says the performance was the musical highlight of the summer.
Reagin also plays a concerto once each season as part of a symphony program. This summer, he tackled Alban Berg's Concerto, and the local review noted that “Reagin played the solo part with technical brilliance and a concern for lyric line.” He also performed an extended solo by Arvo Pärt to accompany a ballet performance by the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Reagin started playing at Chautauqua in 1996, although only for a two-week guest stint. He was selected for the concertmaster’s spot over three other finalists and took over the position beginning with the 1997 season.
With experience dating back to the late 1970s, however, Reagin is no stranger to the concertmaster’s position.
He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music for three years, earning a diploma in violin performance in 1976 and an artist diploma in 1977, and he served as concertmaster of the institute’s symphony orchestra. In 1980, he auditioned for the Pittsburgh Symphony, and two seasons later, he was named assistant concertmaster. He played four years under André Previn and four years under Lorin Maazel. Reagin came to Raleigh in 1988 to serve as concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony.
Only the fourth concertmaster in the Chautauqua Symphony’s 80-year history, Reagin generally likes the extra demands that the position requires — it’s more than shaking hands with the conductor, on behalf of the orchestra, at the end of a performance.
“I find it desirable, because I want to do a little bit of everything.”
In fact, the performance-ending handshake is just the main visible sign that the first-chair violinist is the concertmaster. The position involves a variety of other duties, many of which he also takes on in Raleigh.
“The music for our Chautauqua season comes in January, and part of my homework is to put the bowings (markings) in the music, which is then passed along to the other string sections. I serve on the audition committee for all string parts, and I am chairman of the artistic advisory committee, which helps with music selection.
“But I probably emphasize music more than anything else. You might characterize the position as the on-the-field leader of orchestra, maybe the quarterback,” Reagin says. “My non-music work as concertmaster is more advisory or consultation, maybe 20 percent of everything.”
On occasion, the job involves tackling personnel matters within the orchestra, which requires management skills on top of musical skills. The players might bring their own way of doing things when they take their chairs at Chautauqua.
The Chautauqua Symphony consists of more than 70 players, representing many states and a variety of orchestras. This summer, at least five other musicians were from North Carolina, and several foreign players were part of the ensemble as well.
Musicians came from the Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Seattle, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, and Rochester symphony orchestras, among larger ensembles. The orchestra included members from Barcelona, Spain, Osaka, Japan, and Helsingborg, Sweden. Several colleges and universities were represented, including the Eastman School, Michigan State University, Indiana University, University of California, University of North Texas, and Ohio State University.
“This is more of a destination orchestra than a resume builder,” Reagin says. “We have auditions at the beginning of each summer as needed, and we have a two-year tenure process, which means that you go through two seasons before you can become a permanent member of the orchestra.”
With so many concerts to prepare for, a Chautauqua Symphony musician spends most of his or her time immersed in music. One or two rehearsals are scheduled before each concert, and some musicians also play in smaller ensembles and teach in a resident music school. Reagin has appeared with the Chautauqua Chamber Players, for example, and he has served on the Chautauqua School of Music faculty.
This music-making leaves some time to soak up the interesting programs and the speakers who come each summer. “We generally have Mondays off,” Reagin says, adding that he was able to hear a Beach Boys concert and a Garrison Keillor performance. But most of the musicians’ time is spent with the music. That can be wearing, but Reagin says the 2009 symphony season closed successfully.
“We finished strongly. Some of our regular players had left, because they had other commitments, so we had some subs, but we finished well. You have an ebb and flow during the season, just like you do in the North Carolina Symphony.”
Reagin does consider the Chautauqua experience a time to be with family. His young son, 10-year-old Sean, stays with him, and his mother and brother have visited from far away. He appreciates the small-town village atmosphere that Chautauqua provides.
“This is a great place for kids. I don’t have to worry about Sean when he’s doing things with other kids here. It’s a safe environment. He might fall off his bike, but no one knocks him off.”
While playing in the orchestra, he lives on the east side of Lake Chautauqua and for the past seven years, he has “commuted” to the institution via motorboat. And even after more than a dozen years of 20+ concerts crammed into eight weeks, the Chautauqua experience remains fresh for Reagin.
“This can be a musically enriching experience, or it can be a grind, depending on your attitude,” Reagin says. “For me, it’s a satisfying experience being in the Chautauqua Symphony and being concertmaster. In the back of my mind, I want to stay as long as Mischa Mishakoff, who was Toscanini’s concertmaster. He was here about 40 years.”