Today, the Montreal-born maestro serves as Principal Concertmaster, or first violin, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra – one of the finest musical organizations in the world – which just returned from a month-long, rave-reviewed European tour.
“We rented violins for $5, $10 a month,” Chalifour chuckled with his delightful French accent as he recalled the parish nuns who made sure he was getting his lessons.
These days, Chalifour thoughtfully coaxes melodies from a three hundred-year-old Stradivarius – one of just five hundred or so still in use – which is owned by the L.A. Phil and tagged ‘priceless.’
While plying his trade in Cleveland, Chalifour was offered L.A. Phil’s Concertmaster position in 1995 – “the first major orchestra that gave me the opportunity to be concertmaster,” he says – and the rest is local history. With wife Nancy, daughter Stephanie and son Eric in tow, the family immediately made San Marino their new home for two reasons.
“The excellent schools and the proximity to downtown,” he said. “A lot of musicians move to the westside, Santa Monica and communities near the beach. Soon they are tired of the commute. Now I advise newcomers to move to South Pasadena, or somewhere more near to Los Angeles.”
Though always considered to be among the finest, Chalifour says the Los Angeles Philharmonic has blossomed under the direction of music director Gustavo Dudamel.
“I am very proud of the product,” Chalifour said. “The orchestra has taken a journey from good to superlative. It excels at a world class level. The process was going on, but [Dudamel] came at the right time. Change often brings freedom and that is what Gustavo has brought to us. Freedom of expression, flexibility. In fact, that is a word that often comes out of Gustavo’s mouth. Flexibility. We just came back from a tour where the acoustics are very different in each hall and we had to make a lot of changes. One part of the orchestra might have to play louder in this hall while another would need to be less dominant so that we could achieve a constant balance. He includes every single player.”
Disney Hall currently serves as Chalifour’s creative laboratory, so to speak, and the venue ranks among the artist’s favorites.
“This is a great space,” Chalifour said. “Many older European halls have seating along the sides, but Disney has seating behind the stage and that is quite different. In the United States, I like Disney, Severance Hall (Cleveland) and Boston (Symphony Hall.) We just returned from Lucerne, Switzerland and they have a beautiful, modern hall (The KKL). We played two nights there and I liked that space very much.”
Legend abounds that the hands of top musicians carry extra insurance, and Chalifour believes his are covered by “a supplemental disability policy,” but he doesn’t go overboard in keeping from day-to-day activity.
“I cook all the time, and I am careful,” he said. “It’s when I do new things that I take caution. For instance if I cook in someone else’s kitchen and am using different knives. I am careful. If I haven’t played tennis in two years, I won’t go out and immediately play for two hours. Common sense.”
The tone of his gentle voice changes upon mention of the Stradivarius.
“It is a very, very special instrument,” he said. “Especially when you get into an honest acoustical environment, that is when the Stradivarius is at its best and the sound is unequaled. Occasionally, I like to let it rest. I play on another more modern instrument.”
Chalifour continues, saying that Antonio Stradivari and his two sons made between 800-900 violins during the patriarch’s lifetime – “he lived until he was 92 or 93,” Chalifour says. “Two or three lifetimes for that time period” (Antonio passed away in 1737). They were of such high quality that people paid a premium price even back then.”
When asked how his industry has seemingly sidestepped the technological revolution, Chalifour enthusiastically endorsed his craft.
“That is the beauty of an orchestra,” he exclaimed. “It is organic, we use the acoustic tools of the soul. It is fantastic to think that the most beautiful music ever written, you need no electricity or light to play. It is still the peak of an art form. The sounds are still unequaled.”
The role of Concertmaster, Chalifour says, entails the duty of “leader of all the strings” and requires hours – days – weeks – of behind-the-scenes preparation.
“Music is written and orchestras are directed by composers to play by using the same bow direction,” he said. “A large part of my responsibility involves working with the musical librarians and marking the different pieces. What part of the bow is t he piece played in? What is the bowing direction? We must allocate the number of players and decide who plays what. This often takes place four to six weeks before the performance.”
Most of the orchestra’s rehearsal takes place at home and the group only plays together approximately twenty hours a week, including actual performance time.
He said the actual rehearsals are “intense” and when asked if the dynamics of an orchestra are similar to that of an athletic team, the answer came with mixed assent.
“It’s different,” Chalifour said after a short pause. “The nice thing is everybody wins. There is a lot that goes on in the moment. A lot of adaptation from each player. Like a football game, everybody has a job to do. But even though it is rehearsed, we make a lot of changes during the course of a performance.”
He said the most common misconception of his trade is “the amount of time that is involved in the preparation.”
“People don’t think it is a full time job,” Chalifour said. “But if there are four concerts a week, we must be sharp and rested. We sacrifice a lot of leisure hours and most of the time our weekends are Monday and Tuesday.”
“Or just Monday,” he said with a chuckle. We were speaking on a Tuesday.
Chalifour teaches at USC and said that most members of most orchestras are either on staff of a musical education institution or give private lessons to supplement their income, which in most cases took a significant hit during the recent economic meltdown. Chalifour expressed gratitude towards “the great audience, great donors and great management” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for sustaining his profession.
As part of San Marino’s Centennial celebration, Chalifour has agreed to appear at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church to provide ‘The Gift of Music,’ on Sunday, April 14 from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. A reception will follow the performance, which is free to the public.
Chalifour will perform as part of a string quartet with some of his USC students as well as solo work and alongside Robert Hovencamp, St. Edmund’s organist and pianist.
“It is a beautiful space,” Chalifour said of the church. “We will play beautiful music, as varied as possible” and may even include some of his favorites – concertos by Bach and Mozart – though he “loves all great music.”
The recipient of various grants and awards in his native Canada, Chalifour graduated with honors from the Montreal Conservatory at the age of 18, then moved to Philadelphia to pursue studies at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1986 he received a certificate of honor at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was a laureate of the Montreal International Competition the following year. Since then he has performed hundreds of concerto performances from a repertoire of more than fifty works. He has appeared as soloist with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, Sir Neville Marriner and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Outside the U.S., he has appeared as a guest soloist with the Auckland Philharmonia, the Montreal Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the National Orchestra of Taiwan, among others.
Chalifour began his orchestral career in 1984 with the late Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, playing as Associate Concertmaster for six years. He occupied the same position for five years in the Cleveland Orchestra where he also served as Acting Concertmaster under Christoph von Dohnányi. While in Cleveland, Chalifour taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and was a founding member of the Cleveland Orchestra Piano Trio. Chalifour is a frequent guest at summer music festivals including the Sarasota Festival and the Mainly Mozart Festival since 1989. Maintaining close ties to his native country, he has returned there often to teach and perform as soloist with various Canadian orchestras, most recently the Vancouver Symphony.
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