Thousands of classical musicians have made their living as itinerant soloists, performing recitals and joining orchestras in concertos. Some like cellist Pablo Casals, pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Jascha Heifetz remain well known, but others are all but forgotten.
The most widely recognized tend to be those who play the three most popular solo instruments: violin, cello and piano. Fewer concertos exist for other instruments and they are less frequently heard, so the number of, say, oboe or trumpet soloists is much smaller and the number of famous ones smaller yet.
“There are not that many [percussion soloists],” said Patricia Dash, percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “We don’t have the Heifetz or Perlman or all that kind of stuff, because it’s still a little bit of an emerging field. There are just a small handful of people who are primarily soloists. Most soloists are also chamber musicians or orchestra musicians or professors at schools.”
Meanwhile, many noted cello, violin and piano virtuosos have appeared with the CSO. But for concertos featuring most other instruments, the top-notch members of the orchestra are typically asked to step in as soloists, and visiting artists on those instruments are much more rarely heard.
“I can count on one hand the clarinetists who have soloed with the Chicago Symphony who are not members of the orchestra,” said John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinetist. “In our orchestra at least, the soloists in the wind and brass sections are usually the ones who get the opportunity to play concertos with the orchestra. Very rarely do we have an outside woodwind or brass player.”
With that in mind, five CSO members were asked to name their favorite soloists on their instruments, and several of their choices were hardly surprising: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist David Oistrakh and flutist Emmanuel Pahud — all major names. But the other two are probably mostly known only to devotees of the instruments they play: Harold Wright, principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1970 through 1993, and Joshua Jones, principal percussionist of the Calgary (Alberta) Philharmonic.
So Young Bae, violin
Favorite soloist: David Oistrakh
“This is one of the questions that I get asked the most along with my favorite composer. It’s hard to pick one soloist since it depends on which piece I listen to and what kind of mood I am in. However, when I was a student, I was obsessed with David Oistrakh. I loved his firm Russian style covered with warm continuous vibrato.
“One of my favorite recordings of his is the second movement of the [Brahms’] Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108, with pianist Vladimir Yampolsky, who was his tour partner. (I believe this is a live recording.) I get teary just listening to the first note. The sound is very personal and inviting. It gets directly to your soul. His tasteful slides are the best part! Many of his recordings are live so they may not sound as flawless and clean compared to today’s standards, but there is something special you can only find on live recordings.”
Loren Brown, cello
Favorite soloist: Yo-Yo Ma
Brown admires many top cellists from the past, including Lynn Harrell, Gregor Piatigorsky and Mstislav Rostropovich. But as his favorite, he chose Yo-Yo Ma, in part because the celebrated soloist is still alive and active on the world stage and in part because “he is such a nice person on top of everything else.” Ma has performed many times with the CSO and served as its creative consultant from 2010 through 2019. “He’s played everything so much like all these guys, and so when he comes to a rehearsal or dress rehearsal, he’s not putting everything into it. But, man, when it comes to the performance, he just communicates. He doesn’t hold back at all.”
In addition, Brown praised Ma’s many educational and humanitarian efforts, including his promotion of world music through his famed Silkroad Ensemble, which is “really inspiring.” “So I think, over all, he is an amazing person,” he said. Brown also wanted to give a shout-out to Anner Bylsma (1934-2019), whose 1979 period-style recording of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites offered a revolutionary approach to the celebrated solo works.
Emma Gerstein, flute
Favorite soloist: Emmanuel Pahud
“For wind and brass players, it’s a bit more muddy, because there aren’t that many pure soloists as there are for violin, piano and cello. It’s probably not any great surprise, but I feel like I’m going to have to choose Emmanuel Pahud, who’s an orchestral player also. [Pahud serves as co-principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic.] He has a lot of recordings that he has done and has done a lot of solo concertizing. I started listening to his recordings probably in middle school and I can still listen to them now and still love them in the same way.
“For others who I maybe also admire from other generations, my tastes have maybe changed a bit more. I love his sound. A lot of people try to imitate him and sound like him, but nobody can quite do it. He has a really beautiful, resonant tone, and he can make lots of different colors on the flute. I’ve actually never heard him live, sadly, but I get this from watching the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall concerts and listening to his CDs. I love watching him play, because he looks really relaxed. He doesn’t look he has to try. It looks like it comes very naturally to him.”
Patricia Dash, percussion
Favorite soloist: Joshua Jones
“I have thought about it a little bit, and I wanted to change the criteria slightly and tell you who I think my most inspirational soloist is.” She cited Joshua Jones, a Chicago native who recently won the audition for principal percussionist of the Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony. When he was 9 years old, he began participating in the Chicago Symphony’s Percussion Scholarship Program, which is directed by Dash and her husband, Douglas Waddell, assistant principal percussionist of the Lyric Opera Orchestra.
After a fellowship with the Detroit Symphony and a post with the Pittsburgh Symphony, he was appointed principal percussionist of the Calgary Symphony in 2017. After a bout with cancer and extensive physical therapy following a successful operation that left him almost immobile, it looked doubtful that he would be able to fulfill a solo engagement he had with the Calgary Symphony in April 2019. But he was able to go through with the performance of Gareth Farr’s Hikoi. “It was the most incredible thing I have ever seen or heard,” Dash said. “I was actually not able to be there to see it live, but he sent me a link to a video of it, and I was just completely blown away. It was sensational.”
John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinetist
Favorite soloist: Harold Wright
“For me, it’s always been Harold Wright [1926-1993]. He was my idol since I was a very young teenager, and when I got to study with him at Tanglewood and Marlboro, he became my mentor. I would go and consult with him when I was preparing for concertos here in Chicago, and he would always be my model. His playing was always so vocal, and it spoke to me on such a deep level. It was just right, perfectly right for me. There’s even a Facebook group now devoted to Harold Wright and his teacher, Ralph McLane, principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
“So that kind of lineage is what got passed down to me in my ear, and that always spoke to me and still does. There are two major concertos that I associate with Harold, and that would be the Mozart Concerto and the Copland Concerto. Those are the two that I look to him for the absolute inspiration.”
TOP: Yo-Yo Ma is cited as the favorite soloist of CSO cello Loren Brown. “When it comes to a performance, he just communicates,” Brown said. “He doesn’t hold back at all.” | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography