To sit or to stand, that has been the question with violinist Andres Cardenes.
Even when music director Lorin Maazel appointed him concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the Cuban-born violinist was torn between soloing and leading from the first chair. After all, his solo career had been building after he won second prize in the 1982 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow. But luckily for the PSO, Mr. Cardenes heeded Mr. Maazel's call and has been a dominating presence in the group as an artist and leader for more than two decades and nearly 1,500 concerts.
It's not as if taking the job meant he couldn't solo: Mr. Cardenes, 53, has performed about 35 violin concertos with the PSO and countless key solos within works. He also has conducted more than 50 compositions either on the Heinz Hall stage or with the PSO Chamber Orchestra. As a professor of violin at Carnegie Mellon University and in master classes nationwide, Mr. Cardenes has passed on his knowledge, and the teachings of his mentor, Josef Gingold, to countless students.
Now Mr. Cardenes has decided to put the focus on standing again. He officially takes leave from the PSO in August, but this weekend marks the last of his subscription concerts as concertmaster, wrapping up a distinguished tenure.
You've said your stints as concertmaster in the Utah and San Diego symphonies in the mid-1980s left you not wanting that position again. So how did Mr. Maazel convince you?
He promised me some solos but asked in the meantime if I could substitute in the orchestra while they looked. I said I would be willing to do that but I am not interested in the job. After playing with him a couple times, I thought, man is he good! I was not high on orchestra at that time, but playing with Maazel changed that in me within a few weeks. Before long I had committed to eight weeks and then 20 the following year, and then finally I somehow ended up taking the job.
What are you most proud of from your time with the PSO?
We have a very disciplined violin section, and over the years I have been very proud of that. I am very proud of the fact that we have really worked hard to instill a sense of playing at the right place on the bow, distributing the bow correctly, honoring the style and requirements for making a great violin sound and great violin section.
We are pretty powerful for an orchestra that is undersized by international standards. We should really have another five violins, probably need at least another four cellos. We certainly could use another two to four violas and a couple of basses. I think we have a unique sound, particularly in the winds. The horn section is very definitive. The wind section has been playing together for a long time. They have a very great cohesiveness and color.
What is your philosophy of violin playing?
My teacher said something which affected me deeply for many, many years and still does: Technique is vocabulary. It's a way to use your ability in the service of music or the service of expression.
I have always admired your playing of solos within pieces. How do you approach those?
The idea is that you are a team member for a good portion of the time, and then when it is time to come out a little bit, you have to shift into a different gear. You create an almost different persona for a short amount of time, then you ease back into the texture. When there is a big solo, in Richard Strauss' "Heldenleben" [for example], you have to step up and be the man and do it. But after my solo in "Heldenleben," I always immediately soft-pedal the next entrance because I know I am going to overplay it, thinking I am still the big cheese and I am not.
Your thoughts on working with former music director Mariss Jansons?
It was more difficult with Jansons because he was less flexible. I loved him personally and loved his music-making, but with bowings and things that referred to string playing we hardly ever agreed.
What about nonmusical leadership?
Everyone wants to do well, and whenever there is a conflict or something like that, we generally resolve it without too much trouble. Being a leader is always going to be difficult because there are times when you think you should be setting an example and people don't want you to, and that whole dynamic has changed drastically in the last 50 years.
It used to be that when my teacher was concertmaster, he was the undisputed leader of the orchestra. People came to him, respected him and discussed with him. In our society today in America and in our orchestra, everybody is equal. I have an equal vote in auditions. That's fine. I certainly don't think I am better than anyone else, but the idea of leadership here is very different than it is many other places.
What are the reasons you are leaving the PSO?
Some of the reasons I am leaving are that I have a lot of ambitions and a lot of standards and a lot of things I still want to accomplish. I don't think I could go much further anymore, and that's part of the reason I am leaving.
I think I would say you are not as effective in a certain way after a certain length of time. ... It is better to leave when you still feel you have a lot to give. The last thing you want is for people to say, 'I wish he'd leave or it's time for him to retire or why don't they move him back?' That will never happen with me because I will never give anybody a chance to ever say it.
Is it a matter of logistics, pursuing conducting, soloing and teaching?
There is a point that your colleagues just think you are not dedicating your life to them and to their orchestra. The minute that anybody becomes larger than the organization or appears to be larger than the organization, then immediately that is problematic. I certainly don't think I am larger than the organization but the perception of that [is] very dangerous. When I leave the orchestra, then I am going to do other things and the attention will be on me solely, about the things I want to do, and I don't have to worry about any of the other consequences.
Have you solidified any more plans for your career after the PSO?
I have been invited a lot of places. I have been invited to come and play concertmaster with several other orchestras, which I am going to do just to help them out while they are searching. I have no intention of going to another orchestra or playing concertmaster anymore. This is truly the end of my concertmaster career. I am actually trying not to get bogged down in anything permanent at the moment. I really want to be a free agent. I have never played the Saint-Saens B minor Violin Concerto and I am going to play it next year for the first time with the Richmond (Ind.) Symphony. It will be a whole different scene to sit down and tinker with it for seven months. I will really know it and be calm about it.
How is your recording project faring?
I am about a quarter of the way through, because I had shoulder surgery last year which postponed a couple of projects. The [Leonardo] Balada Capriccios are coming out in the fall, and I am just now editing the Beethoven concertos.
Can you cite a favorite performance with the PSO?
My first tour of the orchestra we played at the opening of the first Jewish Community Center in Moscow in 1989. They hadn't had a Jewish Community Center there since 1917. That was a very emotional, very amazing event. I will never forget the people waving and crying, very emotional about that.
I remember so many incredible interpretations by Maazel, in particular [Bartok's] "Miraculous Mandarin," Prokofiev Fifth Symphony and Beethoven Seven. We had some wonderful concerts with Jansons. I think what I probably will miss most is the touring because we always played for incredible audiences that went wild for us.
Andrew Druckenbrod: email@example.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com/music.