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Concertmaster of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Guillaume Molko

Sep 28, 2018

My name is Guillaume Molko. I’m the concertmaster for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

I started playing violin when I was seven in a very small town of about 8,000 people. My parents aren’t musicians. They just noticed I sang pretty well, and I was always singing, so they thought I might be interested in music as an after-school activity. I liked it. In France, you learn music theory for two years before you start playing an instrument, which is not so fun, but it turned out to be quite easy for me. I have perfect pitch, so whatever dictation or ear training was very easy. Playing as a child was fun but there were some sacrifices. When my friends were outside playing football, I would be inside practicing. Still, I had a great childhood. The competitive part didn’t begin then.

At 15, I went to Grenoble, the nearest bit city, for two years of studying. The next step was Paris, where I wanted to enter the biggest, the most famous conservatory in France, the Paris Conservatory, and I quickly… crashed. I went from being the best in Grenoble to being the worst in Paris. My first teacher in Paris was Russian, and now the pushing started, Russian-style. It wasn’t easy. From being just a casual player, real stuff happened in Paris. I was 17. Finally, after two years, I got into the Paris Conservatory.

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I stayed in Paris for quite a while and developed a lot musically. I listened to a lot of chamber music, a lot of opera, but not only, also jazz, and also rock. My first experience as a concertmaster was in Paris when I was 21. I really loved it. Winning that position became my goal and it seems I had the skills. Being a concertmaster is not just playing an instrument well but being able to lead an entire orchestra without a baton. It’s complicated to describe. You can learn to do it but mostly I think it’s something you just have in you.

I’m like the associate conductor now. I follow the conductor and respect their input. But when I was still in my 20s, I couldn’t get this position. I would go to the final round of auditions, but I wouldn’t get the job because I didn’t have enough experience or my level was not high enough. So I decided to go to New York.

I already had a very comfortable life in Paris. But I went to New York and had one lesson with a very well known teacher. After a single lesson, I said ok, I’m leaving everything in Paris, and I’m going to New York to study with you. She changed me a lot. And then my auditions began to be successful. I stayed in New York for two and a half years, mostly studying with her.

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I met my wife in New York. She’s Chinese, from Dalian, so I started searching for jobs in Asia. I worked in Hong Kong for about a year, as a guest concertmaster with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and then I got a job in Shenzhen with their symphony orchestra for a year.

After that, we picked Shanghai because we felt really comfortable. We were living in the East Village in New York, which is an amazing place with many bars, many restaurants, very vibrant life. In Shanghai, we felt right away, when I passed the audition, and I had a few trial concerts, that it had the same kind of vibe as New York. I could consider positions in other countries, but I am really, really happy here. We are about to have a second son here. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year – the oldest in Asia – and this is a big year. I feel like, after six years, I’ve really found a home with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and with the city.

There are so many choices for everything. The quality of the food here is amazing. I would probably fight with my Italian colleagues at the SSO but I really like Seve on Huashan Lu. At Tom’s, [Ed note: also known as Casa Mia] they have the most unbelievable burrata. It’s a secret place, a secret restaurant, in the Donghu Hotel building, around the back. I don’t go there that often because its quite pricy but I would also name Jean Georges. Otherwise, there is this small bistro called Vis a Vis, all the way at the end of Fuxing Xi Lu, at the end of the street. Another of my favorites is Raw Grill. On performance nights, I’m so excited after the concert, that you will probably see me at Union Trading Company. I love it there.

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As part of my role, I also teach chamber music, violin and orchestra classes for students of the Shanghai Orchestra Academy, which is a collaboration with the New York Philharmonic. We work out of practice rooms here at the SSO. The students are mainly Chinese, but not all. We have a French horn who is American. We also have a few foreigners in the orchestra. We are expanding and so far the recent winners of the auditions were Italian. One is a principal trumpet and the other is the principal timpani, who is quite popular here. He gets big claps every show. And we just hired a principal double bass from South Korea.

The rest of job my goes beyond simply rehearsing. Yes, we have rehearsals four days a week when we have a concert, and a dress rehearsal on the day of the concert. But I have to prepare so I know not only my part but also the parts of the other instruments. I work a lot on the full score, to be able to lead, not only my section, but the entire orchestra. Sometimes we have to adjust to the conductor’s style, which can be completely different from one to the other, so my job is to get the orchestra ready for the conductor.

The majority of my colleagues are from China. I try to speak Chinese as much as I can but I’m not so talkative. I’d rather show. I tell this quote, from Hans Christian Andersen, to all of my students: Where words fail, music speaks.

It’s very, very hard to put words on a feeling, and on musical ideas. Of course, you can always say 'a shorter stroke' or 'louder', but when it goes beyond the basics, that’s where it’s very interesting for me. That’s something you cannot really explain with words. That’s where the music starts.

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