Violinist / Composer  Rubén  D’Artagnan  González

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


We have just received word that Rubén D’Artagnan González, a concertmaster with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1986 until 1996, died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on August 13, 2018, after a long illness. He was 79.

González began studying the violin at the age of five in his native Argentina. He became a student of Osvaldo Pessina in Buenos Aires, later completing his studies with Salomon Baron in France and Riccardo Brengola in Italy. First prize winner of the International Competition of Barcelona in 1965, González also received the silver medal at the Geneva Competition and the diploma of honor of the Chigiana Academy in Siena, Italy.

A former member of I Virtuosi di Roma, González was music director of the Camerata Bariloche, Argentina’s leading chamber orchestra, with which he toured extensively and recorded Martinů’s Concerto da camera for Philips [shown below-right]. Other solo recordings included violin sonatas by Prokofiev and Honegger along with works by Ginastera [shown farther down on this webpage].

González served as concertmaster of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1977 until 1981, and later concertmaster of the Houston Symphony from 1981 until 1986, when he was invited by Sir Georg Solti to be one of two concertmasters (along with Samuel Magad) of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. González appeared on numerous recordings, and as soloist with the Orchestra on several occasions, including Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under Solti, Busoni’s Violin Concerto with James Paul, Chausson’s Poème and Haydn’s C major violin concerto under Erich Leinsdorf, Ginastera’s Violin Concerto with Dennis Russell Davies, Mozart’s D major Serenade under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Herbert Blomstedt, and Strauss’s Violin Concerto under Daniel Barenboim. In 1996, González resigned as concertmaster to continue his work as a conductor and composer.

As an educator, González served on the faculties of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, the University of Minnesota, Congress of Strings, and the Bariloche Foundation in Argentina. He was a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association.

Upon his resignation, González wrote to his colleagues, “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been the crowning of my career as an orchestral musician and concertmaster. I keep the Orchestra in my heart as the jewel of my music-making life. I am most grateful to all of you for your support, help, and friendship throughout these ten years.”


We met backstage at Orchestra Hall in mid-January of 1994, before a subscription concert of the Chicago Symphony.  González was quiet in his responses to my questions, amazingly so considering his position of leading this great orchestra.

Rubén D’Artagnan González:   I do everything super-soft and mellow.
Bruce Duffie:   Super-soft???

González:   [With a smile]  So much so that people don’t understand what I’m saying!

BD:   Does everyone understand what you play?

González:   If I’m clear, and if I make the point of trying to do everything that the composer wrote, yes!  I’ve been lucky in that sense, very blessed.

BD:   Now is the way the composer wants it always the point of departure, or how much do you have to change to fit the way the conductor wants it?

González:   When I play in an orchestra and the conductor wants certain things, that’s what he wants.  I not going to argue with a conductor who has studied the score in way that makes it his own understanding of what the composer wrote.  But I’m talking about my own playing.  To the best of my ability, and to the best of my understanding, I am trying to play what’s there.  On the other hand, I have to say over and over again that I have the experience of finding that the composer, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, is right.  [Laughs]  Maybe it is even a higher proportion!  On the other hand, depending on the period, the composer very often wants to notate everything that could be obtained.  When you read a Mahler measure where there are nine different indications for the way in which you’re going to play a note, with different dynamics, and different strokes, and different accents, and different lengths, and indications of how to acquire the texture of the note, it becomes apparent how much needs to be indicated to really have a fairly good idea of what could be done within a given passage.

BD:   How much does interpretation influence your own playing when you’re in a chamber group, and you are your own conductor?
González:   The first thing is to figure out what the composer wrote.  That is paramount.  Without being dogmatic, and without being inelastic, first and foremost I use what’s written.  If the note has a certain written length, we should hold it.  If a diminution in the sound, a diminuendo, is not indicated, why not sustain that?  At least we should give it a try to see how it sounds.  If it’s not coinciding with the character, then it means that although it’s not indicated, there’s a slight give to the sound that implies the phrase.  But very often that goes with the style of the composer.  It depends on the period of music history.  Brahms will write it out for you.  Beethoven is already pretty careful about that.  Mozart will not, because his style is more apparent.

BD:   But each composer assumed that his performers would have that style, and yet now we’ve gone through so many changes of style.  As a performer, do you have to master every one of these style changes?
González:   Yes, absolutely.  You must.  In fact, one of the most prized aspects an interpreter can have is versatility.  He or she can immediately set the view of the style of the particular sound.  When talking about orchestral pieces, you don’t play Brahms or Bruckner the same way you play Debussy.  That’s pretty apparent to anybody, but very often you’re going to find somebody playing a Mozart sound with a Beethoven quality, or with a Tchaikovsky quality.

BD:   Are all of these ideas right in their own way?

González:   Sure, of course!  The composer has his own style, and some people have been very keen in finding that.

BD:   But are all of these interpretative ideas right?

González:   I wouldn’t presume that the composer didn’t get it right.  We know the youthful works of certain composers are sometimes less sophisticated, or more complicated than necessary, when compared to what they do later on.  But they have a law unto themselves already, which is the style of that composer, and in that style, he has found his way of expressing himself.  It is our task to be able to find the right sound, the right texture, the right balance for each particular composition.  Let’s say a given chord is written at the beginning.  In Mozart, for example, something that everybody knows is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  It begins with a G major chord, and you make it sound in a certain way.  If that chord is written in a Bruckner symphony, or in the second Brahms string quintet, for example, which is also in G major, you give it a different weight.  It is like that for every other note in the piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Besides being an interpreter and a performer all the time, you’ve also done some composing.  Does this give you a little more insight into all of the composers throughout history?

González:   It’s unbelievable how much it’s opened my eyes.  In fact, I was recently revising a score that I’m conducting.  I have just recently finished composing a symphony [Dionisias and the Lone Wolf] in collaboration with a team, mainly with the first oboe of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic in Argentina, Mariano Krauz.  When we did the reading of the fourth movement, there were mistakes of transcription and copying.  I had that in my ear, and during the rehearsals I was listening to what the others wrote with a different ear already.  I was thinking, “Aha!  He used two horns and bassoons in a way that I might have only used two bassoons... or he combined the sound with the timpani.”
BD:   That way you hear what works and what doesn’t work?

González:   Yes, very often.  Usually with the great composers, everything works.

BD:   But it might not work in your idea for this particular piece?

González:   No.  Obviously I’m not trying to imitate anything, although I’m not going to deny all the possible influences that I can learn from them.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You steal from everybody?

González:   Absolutely!  That’s the way art is created.  Everything has been written.  Everything has been created already, and what we do is re-create.  Each one of us has a personal voice, but we’re not going to reinvent a C major chord.  So, every time that I go C-E-G, I’m sounding like Schubert, and Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and everybody that ever used that chord somewhere in some kind of way.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  And yet you were saying before that the Mozart G major chord was different from the G major chord in Brahms, which was different from the one in Bruckner, and everyone else.

González:   Right!  When I use it, it might remind you of here, or there, or whatever, but in the end, it’ll also be something I wrote, and it will be my own distillation.  Let me refer to an experience that many interpreters have in the course of their career.  Most people, when they study an instrument, at one point or another
no matter how gifted they are, and no matter how advanced, and how intelligent, and how determined they are to be independentin the main they can’t avoid doing their teacher’s version of a certain work.  There’s almost no way otherwise.  Many teachers will insist the student develop his own view of a certain piece, but at the same, the teacher will be suggesting constantly, “This needs this, and this sound should be here, and that has too much emphasis!”  So, sooner or later, it comes to the perfect imitation of his teacher, which is the best way to learn.  First he will be doing the teacher, and then he’ll be hearing others, and then he will also be studying with other people, and go to summer courses, or taking a professional seminar with some famous soloist, and hear different things.  One day, this person will begin to say, “As a matter of fact, I don’t agree with almost any of that, and I will find my own way of sounding.”  He will have all those influences distilled in a way that, at some point, will become absolutely his own version.

BD:   Once he gets the interpretation of his teacher, that’s the beginning rather than the end?

González:   Absolutely, totally!  It’s like graduating from university.  Once you go out and have left, that’s when you really learn how to do it.

BD:   It is called
commencement because that’s where you start.

González:   Precisely, and in composition it’s the same.

BD:   Can I assume that the learning process for any musician never stops?

González:   Absolutely.  I see it here with Barenboim, for example, how much he finds in a score.  He is constantly being struck by something, and says, “Ah! Wait a second.”  The way in which we play something sounds different than another orchestra, so he balances it according to what he hears, which is not necessarily what he did the last time he did it somewhere else.  We play mostly with his parts, so we find markings that were probably necessary for an orchestra that he conducted ten or fifteen years ago.  For this orchestra, they’re no longer necessary, or he might want something very different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You are from Argentina and you are part of the tradition of the tango.

González:   Yes.

BD:   What do we in the United States not understand about the tango?

González:   What you may not understand is simply a matter of cultural immersion.  It’s the same as why I don’t understand of jazz, but once you hear the music, the feeling comes out and tells the whole story.  The United States, and the rest of the world, came in contact with the tango
possibly around the twenties and the thirties, and the impression has remained of the tango being a certain stereo-type dance.

BD:   Almost a lurid dance?

González:   Yes, lurid, because it came from certain origin that gave it those overtones.  But personally, let me say right here, that for me the tango is essentially the music.  Very seldom, and only in exceptional cases, do I care for the words.  I find the words in a tango, certainly for an American listener, just as irrelevant as they are for me.  A good singer will make a difference in presenting a text, but very often we know that the text in a song is not the most important part of it.  The tradition of American songs, and Broadway songs, and jazz ballads, makes a much greater emphasis and connection between the words and the music, and it does make a great difference.  Sometimes a song doesn’t have the greatest music in it, but the text makes all the difference, and the way a singer says those words will make it a very interesting proposition.  For me, the attraction of the tango has always been the music, and I always prefer instrumental versions... although I’m not going to shy away from a great singer.  Now, that music has evolved over the years.  It’s not the same today as it was in the forties, and in forties it wasn’t the same as it was in the thirties, or twenties.


BD:   Is it still evolving today?

González:   It’s evolving.  It has a character, and is the character of a city, mainly, or of an area of Argentina around Buenos Aires and across the river, the Rió de la Plata, from Montevideo, in Uruguay.  The tango is a cultural heritage which is very mixed, because the tango has in itself the rhythm and the lilt of a habanera, or even sometimes a rumba in certain moments.  The rhythm is there [demonstrates], and if you mark it a little bit more you make it a tango.  It’s not a habanera, but it can be understood that way.

BD:   That almost sounds like gradation, rather than a whole different piece.

González:   Yes, absolutely.  I liken the tango a lot to the Blues.  The Blues can be very slow; it can be very poignant; it can be upbeat; it can become the basis for rock’n’roll.  It’s all the same.  If you speed up the tempo, or put a harder beat on it, or make more mellow harmonies, you change the character of the piece but it’s still the same music.  I find Americans always enjoy the music and the stereotype concept of the tango, from the times of the Valentino films, and Hernando’s Hideaway type of thing.  It has remained more or less in the whole world, but the Europeans seem to have a better understanding of a traditional tango.  In the latest decades, we have had a particular musician who has made a great difference, Astor Piazzolla, who passed away last year.  He brought a number of devices in terms of the harmonic and rhythmical richness and spirit of the tango, and he has continued the tradition of making that the music of Buenos Aires.  When I go to Buenos Aires, I hear that kind of music in the streets.  The street, the city-scape, proposes that music to me.  There are two cities in the U.S. that remind me a bit of that
New York is the first one, and then Chicago, the type of city with broad shoulders and a swagger, and yet, at the same time, hardworking and full of muscle and grit.
BD:   Is this to say there’s really nothing delicate about a tango?

González:   Oh, on the contrary!  Most of everything can be very delicate and clear in a tango.  You get very, very lyrical, but there is a grit underneath it.  Piazzolla accented two aspects
that grit in some of his very marked rhythms, and then the constant nostalgic character of the tango.  I share that a lot less.  I find the tango beautifully lyrical and melodic, and then very rich harmonically.  He has really helped develop quite a bit in folk music in Argentina through the harmonic quality, and I use in it a bunch of jazz-type harmonies like eleventh- and thirteenth-chords.  I love those, and they go very, very well with the music.  But most of my tangos are truly lyrical and have a singing quality.  They’re never too far from the humorous spirit.

BD:   He wrote for his instrument, which was the bandoneon.  Do you include that in your tangos?

González:   Let me tell you about the present project I’m involved with.  I told you about the symphony, which was an initial project, and I need to go back a little on the story here.  I’m a member of the Yoga School of Buenos Aires, which is a philosophical and psychology foundation, in which we have different departments.  One is Sciences of Art, and there’s a Medicine Department, and there are Psycho-pedagogic Activities Departments, a Department of Jewish Studies, and a Department of Christian Studies.  It’s an all-encompassing institution in which practically every aspect of human activity and creative activities is contemplated.  In the Department of Sciences of Art, there are several musicians.  There are also architects, writers, movie people, and dancers.  The musicians have grouped as a team of four, five, or six, and have been able to produce a number of projects, all of them initiated and suggested by the founder of the school, Dr. Juan Percowicz.  He suggested a while ago that the oboe player, Mariano Krauz and I get together, and write a symphony based on Steppenwolf, the book by Herman Hesse.  At first we didn’t think that we were going to be able to write a thing like that, but little by little it started taking shape.  We worked very, very hard over the summer and these last few months
, and it is officially going to be called The Symphony of Dionisias and the Solitary Wolf.

BD:   Why did he pick that subject, rather than something peculiar to Argentina?

González:   We had done other things also related to Argentine themes, but Steppenwolf is a very much us.  It is the person who finds that his or her life has not entirely satisfied all their questions about life, and about the cosmos, and the fundamental questions of why we’re here, what are we doing here, who brought us here, and what for.  You don’t have to be religious to see that very often some of the dissatisfaction and restlessness that we have inside is the result of not having been able to answer those questions satisfactorily.  We have absolutely no connection to religion in that sense.  In the creative process, there is a tremendous potential for answering those things.  I personally never thought that composing was something that I could venture into, and this push that I received from Dr. Percowicz from the School was fundamental for an awakening and an opening of internal creative forces I had no idea I possessed.

BD:   It sounds like he was pushing you to your next level of artistry.

González:   As he puts it, he’s showing us what our destiny really is, and we were not aware of that before.
  I’m doing the fourth movement with the Elmhurst Symphony on 20th February, and as it is actually a premiere for that movement.

BD:   It will be work-in-progress?

González:   Yes, it’s a work-in-progress.  The official premiere is on March 6th in Argentina, and then I have several performances scheduled throughout the year in other countries
Costa Rica, Uruguay, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

BD:   Will you be the conductor for those?

González:   I will be the conductor for most of those.  For a couple, there will be somebody else conducting.

BD:   Will it be interesting for you to have other hands and eyes and minds looking at it and interpreting it?

González:   Oh, absolutely.  In fact, the first reading that was made of the Symphony was done by a very able conductor with one of the symphonies in Argentina, and I was fascinated by the things he found.  It’s very, very nice to observe how four eyes see more than two.  [Laughs]
 After the project of the symphony, two other projects developed.  There was a book written by a couple of writers in the School, which was published last year in Buenos Aires, and we had a version translated into English.  Dr Percowicz suggested that it be made into an opera, and the opera was completed two or three months ago.  We have had a tentative performance of it, sort of a home-made performance just to see how things were working out.  I’m involved with the orchestration of that piece, and along the same process he said, “What about writing a cantata based on tangos?  You’re an Argentine living in the United States, and that could be a tribute to the great brother country of the north.  I could already hear the Chicago tango, or the Boston tango.

BD:   Will all of these tangos be identifiable, or will they just fit in the fabric of the piece?

González:   They’ll do both.  They’ll be integrated in different sections, and each one of them will also be very personal.  I have had a reason for each one of them.  Some are more tenuous than others.  For me, the Chicago tango is the most muscular tango that I have written.  The first measures came out of me like a gush of creativity, and I thought, “This tango is Chicago!”  I never doubted it, and everybody I play it for, or who has heard it, says it portrays the city.  It’s going to be on this recital on Friday.  Each one of them has a particular sound that inspired it.  I lived in Minneapolis, among other cities, and I know New York quite well, just as I know Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.  So all of those cities have a tango dedicated to them, or a cousin of the tango, which is a much more upbeat type of dance based on the same rhythm.  When you speed it up, it changes character, and it’s called milonga.  I also have a milonga dedicated to Chicago, which I call Bulongita because of the Bulls, and that has been very successful.  In fact, it’s on my answering machine and everybody asks, “What is that tune?”  That’s fun.  So, this project I’m working on very, very intently.  I have all the tangos written out and really fleshed out, but now is the difficult process of setting everything down in an orchestral form.  I’m orchestrating it, and that will take a few months.  Then, as soon as I can, I’ll have a performance of that, just as we’re having a performance of the symphony pretty soon.

BD:   These are all American cities.  Do you also have a Buenos Aires tango?

González:   No.  This is a project that will be the tribute of my becoming an American citizen.  I’ve been American citizen for three years, and to this great country I am very, very grateful.  I love this country really.  It’s my home.  When I go to Argentina, I’m home by birth, but I feel like I’m really much more at home here.

BD:   How does the guy from Argentina wind up being one of the Concert Masters of the Chicago Symphony?

González:   That’s one of the wonders of the free world.  The fact is that I have lived half of my life abroad.  The first time I left Argentina was with a scholarship of the French government.  I was away for ten years living in France and in Italy, and then came here for the first time to this country.  I was in North German Radio Orchestra, and then in Minneapolis, and I was so homesick that when I was offered to lead a chamber orchestra in Argentina, and teach and be full-time with the
Bariloche Foundation, I moved back to Argentina.  I was there for four years, and then we had truly sad circumstances that made the country go downhill.  We had all kinds of very difficult political and economical times, so I left more out of frustration with seeing a country that had squandered its resources.  That was the case in 1975.  Then I went to Germany, and I was there several years, but I missed this country.  I like the way in which music is being made in the U.S., and the dynamism of the American institutions.  There is the private initiative that makes it non-dependent on government support, which is thoroughly needed, but, at the same time, it’s not always the greatest answer, or at least not the only answer, as in Argentina, or is the case in Germany.
BD:   Especially with your tangos, are you making sure that the soul of Argentina remains no matter what the governmental problems become?

González:   Yes, of course.  I never went back without feeling homesick in some way.  The tango, and the food, and the language, and the sound of people’s voices, and the natural warmth of the people there are what I miss the most.  The landscape is incredible.  It’s a beautiful country.  Argentina is very much geographic like the States, except that it’s north-south, rather than east-west.  There are climates like in the U.S., and there are all the landscapes.  The Andes are three times as long as the Rockies are, and some of the mountains there are 23,000 feet.  So, there are all kinds extremes in Argentina.  It’s as cold as Canada, and the north is as warm as the Southern U.S.  I love that country, and the spirit of it is not always portrayed by the tango because, as I said, the tango is the spirit of one city and of one area.  But that’s also where I spent most of my life, and it is always with me.  I see a tango in every piece that I play.  There are places in the Tchaikovksy Violin Concerto where I know it’s a tango.  He didn’t know it but I do!  [Both laugh]  Beethoven has a couple of places in the Third Piano Concerto which begins with a tango.  Plus, there’s plenty of other tangos in the repertoire besides those pieces.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re dancing around this little, so let me hit you with the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

González:   Music is the only way you go when you want to know what’s in your soul.  Words can
t do it.  Without disrespect to other forms of art, I think that music is the highest form of expression to arrive to at least a hint of what the creation is, or what the absolute is.  I don’t want to get religious or mystical here, but to me, music does things that nothing else does.  Absolutely nothing else produces this kind of feeling except maybe a great moment in nature, such as a landscape, where you find yourself in a situation where you wonder where so much greatness comes from, and that point, you begin asking the big questions.

BD:   Then it becomes incomprehensible?

González:   It becomes incomprehensible, but this shows precisely how music is the only form to somehow come to terms with it, to somehow find an explanation to it.  When you hear a symphony, like the Bruckner Sixth we’re playing tonight, you arrive to the point where he opens up like a giant organ.  You realize that somebody like Bruckner, and anybody who is listening to it, can, at some point, make a connection with a higher level of understanding.

BD:   Do you strive for this in your own compositions?

González:   Oh, absolutely.  I wish I could do that all the time.  I strive for that in everything I do, absolutely.

BD:   [At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of a couple of technical details.]  May I ask your birth date?

González:   My birth date is May 4th, 1939, so I’m a Taurus, and that’s why I wrote the milonga based on the Taurus character.  I call it The Bulls.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

González:   I wouldn’t change this moment for anything in my life.  This is the best part of my life ever.  I am on a path, and doing things that all mean tremendously much to me.  Luckily, I can say that I have found meaning in life, and sense in what I do, and I want to pursue the same direction with ever-renewed interest and wonderment.  In my life there is a philosophy that strives for greater understanding of everything that surrounds us.  I don’t claim to know everything, nor I can understand everything, but I feel I’m on the way to achieving a level of understanding that would give me the serenity and the wisdom I’ve always longed for.  [After a slight pause]  
Forgive me, but we need to complete that question about how does an Argentine end up being the concert master of the Chicago Symphony.  

BD:   Of course.  Please continue.

González:   I came to this country after being in Germany because I felt that I would be more satisfied musically here.  I had been coming every summer from Germany to the Aspen Festival, and through that there were connections with a number of conductors.  Sergiu Comissiona of Houston asked me to replace his concert master who was on leave of absence, and after a while when he decided not to come back, they offered me the job.  So, I moved to Houston.

BD:   How long did you stay in Houston?

González:   I was there for six years until there was the opening here.  I auditioned for this position, so that’s how I came here.  I played the audition, won the position, and they offered me the job.

BD:   We’re glad you’re here.

González:   I’m very happy.  Chicago is a town I really feel at home in.  It’s the only town in the world that doesn’t make me miss Buenos Aires!  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s a compliment to us and to you.

González:   Thank you!

BD:   Thank you for chatting with me today.

González:   Thank you.  It was my pleasure.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on January 13, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later, and again in 1994, 1998, and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.