It marked the end of a grand experiment that had started with enormous promise. For two years after the retirement of Norman Carol in 1993, the orchestra had searched for a concertmaster. Music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, along with the committee of players empaneled for the search, heard almost everyone who felt qualified for the job that is key among all the musicians in an orchestra.
It was an odd process that lasted two years and included some affronts to prominent players who had been invited to play, then treated like upstarts. One, the Boston Symphony's Malcolm Lowe, was invited, then kept offstage by protests from orchestra players who said management's invitation to Lowe violated procedures outlined in their union contract.
When Ofer finally appeared to audition, he represented a new direction. Born in Israel, he had studied for a while in New York and held the job of concertmaster with Munich's prestigious Bavarian Radio Orchestra. His audition was greeted by applause, an unusual event in an orchestra of this caliber where virtuosity is a given.
The orchestra's last several concertmasters had been Americans. They came from different backgrounds and training, all had aspired to solo careers, but all implicitly understood the workings of an orchestra. The very title concertmaster is derived from the German but had evolved distinctively in this country. In England, the job is called leader.
Whatever the word, the concertmaster in a big American orchestra is not only a violinist with a soloist's ambitions and state of mind, but also a natural field general, goad and standard bearer. The job ranges from the mundane - establishing the bowings the violins use - to the complex - subtly leading the whole orchestra through sticky places where conductors sometimes lose their way.
The tip of the concertmaster's bow is often the beacon other players need in complex music or in situations where they can't hear each other clearly onstage. There is more than ritual involved when the conductor shakes hands with the concertmaster; that violinist stands for the entire ensemble.
Players who welcomed Ofer as a musician grew restive as they wondered about Ofer's degree of familiarity with some of the pieces they were performing. And the feeling grew within the orchestra that he was interested more in solo playing and less in being the day-to-day leader the position demands.
The culture is different in German orchestras, where players are government employees. In Munich, Ofer was one of two concertmasters, and he had half a season free to devote to solo playing. The presence of two concertmasters means neither has the kind of leadership role demanded by the culture of an American orchestra.
Moreover, musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra complained that Ofer lacked skills in interpersonal relationships. Some musicians said that Ofer sometimes said the wrong thing, brushed off colleagues or missed seeing what might be troubling other players.
Concertmasters often serve as the conductor's ambassador to the players and the players' strong voice to conductors. Audiences here were enthralled for years as Norman Carol was Riccardo Muti's eager supporter, even though he remained Eugene Ormandy's loyal confidant as the younger conductor rose and the older conductor declined. Carol could lead his colleagues in the two conductors' contrasting styles of playing with all sincerity and could embody the discipline needed to steer through an emotional and conflicting time.
Ofer's colleagues said they felt that he did not develop those skills. The audition committee that had applauded Ofer during his audition met as the tenure committee during the orchestra's Asian tour in 1996. It voted in China not to recommend tenure to Ofer but to propose another year of probation.
The committee met a few weeks ago in Madrid and again declined to recommend tenure. But by then, according to a memo written to the players Wednesday by the orchestra's president, Joseph H. Kluger, Sawallisch had said he would not offer the concertmaster a new contract after it expired in September 1998. What their feelings were when Ofer and Sawallisch played chamber music together in a small concert in Amsterdam - days before the resignation - are intriguing to imagine.
The vote and Sawallisch's decision apparently were enough to make Ofer pack his bags. He has another year left in his contract and had been scheduled as soloist at the Mann Center this month, and in October at the Academy of Music.
Ofer could not be reached for comment, and orchestra officials said they did not know where he was. He and Kluger spoke by phone Tuesday, and Ofer agreed to come here this week to discuss his relationship with the orchestra, but Kluger's memo makes clear that Ofer is not expected to be sitting in the first chair.
Second concertmaster William de Pasquale will take over those duties - again. He did so after Carol resigned.
Ofer could very well win back his old job in Munich because the orchestra there has not filled it.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will begin again the search for a new concertmaster. An orchestra, for all its unity and longevity, is forever changing.