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Unsung heroes of the violin section

May 16, 2009 | 12:30 pm


Dan Nobuhiko Smiley is principal second violinist for the San Francisco Symphony. He laughs at his title: “Sounds like an oxymoron. How can you be a principal and second at the same time?”

Not every concertgoer realizes that the sea of violins in a symphony orchestra consists of two distinct sections. The first violins generally “knock out the high melodies,” as Smiley puts it, playing the themes that people walk out of the theater humming. The second violins most often provide the oom-pah-pahs.

“Playing second fiddle” might connote being second-best, but the preparation for playing first or second violin is exactly the same. “You learn concertos and the brilliant, virtuosic stuff,” Smiley explains.

And second violinists seem utterly attuned to the orchestra as a single entity and to their contribution to it.
“The orchestra is not the place for virtuosity," Smiley says. "In fact, often the ‘virtuosos’ can be the problem in certain musical situations. Blending is everything."

Read more about second violinists in this Sunday's Arts & Books article, the final installment in a long-running series about orchestral musicians and their instruments.

And for the rest of the series, click here.

— Constance Meyer

Photo: An array of violins in a Los Feliz shop. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times