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Martin Chalifour sets the tone

Violinist Martin Chalifour with his violin at his home in San Marino.
(Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

Q: Why is a viola bigger than a violin?

A: They are the same size. It’s just that violinists have bigger heads.

It’s probably safe to say that there are fewer jokes about violinists than 7-Elevens or mothers-in-law. Still, Los Angeles Philharmonic principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour was game to throw this one out at his San Marino home, looking forward to Tuesday’s performance of the Julius Conus Violin Concerto at Hollywood Bowl with guest conductor Stéphane Denève.

Chalifour calls the Conus piece “a gem of the Romantic repertory,” adding: “I have made a point of learning a new piece for every solo that I do. I’ve done it more than 30 times in L.A.”

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The occasion for the joke was trying to coax a smile out of Chalifour for a photo. Chalifour, an accomplished photographer in his own right, is naturally up for anything that would improve the shot.

This joke won’t get Chalifour a gig at the Comedy Store, although he may be the first person to tell it with a precious 1711 Kreisler Stradivarius violin in his hand. Then again, maybe doing stand-up with a Strad is becoming a tradition: Comic actor Jack Benny bequeathed his Stradivarius to the L.A. Phil; Chalifour played “the Benny” for 14 of his 17 years with the orchestra.

But the musical gag reminds one that the joke could never have been written with Chalifour in mind. Though the 51-year-old French Canadian violinist has occupied the L.A. Phil’s coveted concertmaster’s chair since 1995, the job has never gone to his head.

Maybe that’s because he started his violin training in his native Montreal with a teacher who adapted the Suzuki method, which did not require the budding musician to learn to read music for the first few years. “It made coming back to it [reading music] pretty darn hard,” Chalifour says. “It was very tough for a child. I had to go a long way.”

He’s come along enough so that he plays two solo concerts each year for the Philharmonic, one at the Bowl and one at Walt Disney Concert Hall (always different repertory). Chalifour also solos with orchestras around the world and often devotes his vacation weeks to additional solo concerts.

Teachers encouraged him to pursue a solo career, but he says he wouldn’t trade the concertmaster life for anything: “I’m the luckiest violinist in North America.”

Though the concertmaster is essentially the rock star of the orchestra as the coordinator of the strings, one can’t imagine even a whiff of temperament from Chalifour. “There’s glitz associated with the concertmaster,” Chalifour acknowledges, sounding a little embarrassed to be using a word more usually applied to Hollywood. “Even though I’m shy to approach people, I get to meet really fantastic people. I played at the home of a former top record executive, and I’ve gotten to take photographs of the artist Ed Moses — that’s really fun stuff.”

Chalifour also aided businessman and music philanthropist Jerry Kohl, owner and president of Brighton accessories retail stores, in his quest to purchase a Stradivarius violin. Chalifour and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Margaret Batjer spent hours at Disney Hall testing out a host of Strads including specimens from Chicago, Vienna and London before Kohl’sselection of the “Milstein Strad,” the 1716 instrument played for more than 40 years by Russian violinist Nathan Milstein (“The Benny” was used for comparison). Kohl occasionally lends the violin to musicians

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Despite the perks, this family man with two grown children (Eric, 21, and Stephanie, 24, with wife Nancy) is the portrait of moderation and restraint. He’s serious about keeping in shape for the physical demands of performing (“Our pulse rate is sometimes comparable to a really fast run”) and carefully monitors diet, rest and even caffeine intake to be in optimum condition to perform. Everything is controlled and in balance. Even Whitley, the fluffy white rescue who holds the job of Chalifour family dog, was chosen for a practical reason: She’s a convenient mix of breeds that don’t shed.

Chalifour heeds the advice of Taras Gabora, his beloved teacher at the Montreal Conservatory of Music: Always rest before a concert. It’s advice that saw Chalifour through the Curtis Institute of Music and stints as associate concertmaster at the Atlanta Symphony and the Cleveland Symphony. “I was once deathly tired but laid there with a pillow for five minutes in a car,” Chalifour says. “I don’t do yoga, but I was able to bring down the metabolism, just slow it.”

Not surprisingly, Gabora remains Chalifour’s biggest fan, praising Chalifour’s unique sound and his ability to connect with a range of musical styles. “He’s actually quite a disciplinarian — I’ve been to Los Angeles many times watching him, and he really sets his tone on the string section,” Gabora says. “By tone, I mean his style of playing. He really controls it. It’s really the sign of a great concertmaster.”

Chalifour was tapped at age 34 for the L.A. orchestra by then-music directorEsa-Pekka Salonen.

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“Martin was a superb, talented young musician with an impeccable pedigree,” Salonen says via email. “The conductor depends heavily on the concertmaster in conveying his ideas. The concertmaster can translate often a relatively abstract concept into physical reality, which is vital especially for non-string playing conductors such as myself.”

Chalifour’s arrival was controversial: Reigning concertmaster Sidney Weiss resigned abruptly during Salonen’s second season, followed by several other musicians, leading to speculation that Salonen was cleaning house. That possibility did not faze Chalifour. “If things have gone in a negative way, it often is easier to start a job because you tend to be automatically hailed as a hero before you’ve done anything,” he says with a laugh.

Chalifour and Salonen had their differences, however. Chalifour sometimes felt that Salonen, who trained as a horn player, had a penchant for dazzling virtuosity and speed that sometimes challenged the strings.

“With Esa-Pekka I would say, do we have enough bow for this passage? Should we use more? He’d say no, it’s fine, but the sound would not be necessarily what I would choose,” Chalifour says. Salonen is quick to acknowledge this: “It’s not a secret that I’ve always been attracted to extremes of expression and technique, and I accept (with empathy) the fact that sometimes I have to push my musical colleagues beyond their comfort zone,” Salonen says.

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The Philharmonic’s music director since 2009, Gustavo Dudamel, is a violinist — which makes life easier for Chalifour, who is also looking forward to performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in May with Dudamel conducting. “Gustavo is pushing you to play with the most beautiful and perfect sound, beautiful intonations while not pushing you beyond your comfort zone in terms of tempo and speed,” Chalifour says.

And the violinist doesn’t need another joke to make him smile at his own metaphor for the job of concertmaster: “Gustavo is a fabulous artist, but the chef won’t cook a great meal unless they get good meat. We’re the meat,” he says of the string section. “Some people are the fresh produce, some people are the spice — we’re the meat.” But always a seeker of perfection, Chalifour pauses to fine-tune his comparison. “Well, the brass might argue that they’re the meat,” he muses. “Maybe we’re the poultry.”

calendar@latimes.com


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