Monday, May 17, 2010

Auditions, Part 1


As repulsive as a thought playing in an orchestra is to most good string instrumentalists, at least for the rest of one's active life, most end up doing it. Options are limited: very few are pretty or handsome enough to manage a career as a soloist. Besides of the eye-candy element, one is also supposed to please conductors and even music critics (if they still exist), whatever that means. The actual skill level doesn't really matter, neither does artistry nor individuality. Some choose to stay in Academia, often as a member of a string quartet in residence, another possibly nightmarish scenario.

The road to an orchestra goes through a process called auditioning. It is a rather faulty and biased system, but more on that another day. These are just some reflections from the distant past, all true.

Although I never intended to become an orchestra musician and still don't consider myself one, over the decades I have had a lot of experience with different groups in different countries and continents. Back home, decades ago, any foreigner was not welcome, a far cry from today's situation. The orchestra where my first wife, an American, became the concertmaster, the audition committee tried every single trick in the book to prevent her employment. After she was named for the post, the conductor was told to call in sick on the Finnish Independence Day, December 6, when the orchestra was to perform Finnish music, including the Finlandia by Sibelius, to a large audience. The contract stated in small print that in case of the conductor's absence, the concertmaster had to take care of wielding the baton. To the players amazement my ex did a splendid job and her picture appeared in the local daily in quarter-page size. 

In Sweden where I worked as concertmaster for a year, a cello assistant principal position was available, and again an older Russian cellist from the back of the section tried out. He actually played quite well and should have won the audition but the players would not allow that to happen. Too many foreigners already, they said. The Saint-Sa├źns concerto was renamed Sans-Chance for him. Unlike in America, Russian musicians and Russians in general were not thought highly of in that country, at least back then.

We all know about Herbert von Karajan's desire to keep his orchestras "pure", free of women (other than a harpist who wasn't really a member). After the maestro's death the Berlin Philharmonic started admitting females; today they make a sizeable portion of the musicians. Not so in Vienna where only a few women have been allowed in, just to be denied tenure, as was the case with a Japanese male tuba player as well. Today they have a woman as one of their concertmasters, but this is widely understood as an attempt to quiet the critics of the all-male club.

Back in Los Angeles, the local chamber orchestra had frequent auditions, especially since so many musicians quit after the departure of greatly admired and beloved Sir Neville Marriner. An unknown brass player on the podium was not in the least to their liking. The concertmaster wanted me in the orchestra and so I auditioned for the principal second violin spot in his house. The conductor had secretly promised the spot to a "friend" and came up with excuses why I wasn't acceptable, mainly because he didn't like my sound. I may have my faults, but a beautiful tone is my trademark, so it was easy for anyone to see through this BS. 

The season started and behind the conductor's back the same "friend" went to the board and said that he himself would make a better leader for the group. Although he was probably right (at least he knew something about string playing), someone leaked this information and the poor fellow with high ambitions was out immediately. By now my sound had improved dramatically in a few weeks and I was named for the post. Not surprisingly, in the first rehearsal I ended up having an argument with the stick-man as he was forcing some idiotic bowings on us in Bach. 

During another audition where I was one of the listeners, there was a man from Alaska who simply didn't know the basics of violin playing. America is a free country and everyone can try, right? We held back tears from amusement and one of us ended up under a coffee table. The concertmaster wanted to bring in an old friend of his, a man that had been a good fiddle player at some point but no longer could play; not an uncommon scenario. The audition started by the concertmaster saying Joe, tell us about your instrument! That was a dead giveaway of what we were going to hear and obviously the man didn't join our ranks.

Conductors try to use their influence and choose their favorites, no matter what the audition committee thinks. I remember a case where a double bass player, who had been kicked out of another group, had been promised a job. He had been placed in the finals but didn't get enough votes to be eligible. The conductor's face turned beet-red from anger. Another opening came but this time rules had been changed so that if someone had been advanced to the finals without going through an earlier round, everyone had to play behind a screen. After hours of listening to the soothing sounds of the double bass, a vote was taken after a discussion. The conductor made clear who his favorite was and this person was elected. This time the maestro's face turned white when the winner was introduced: instead of his old pal, a young skinny woman was brought out.

Years ago it was common that the conductor could have "inside" auditions and move a person from the second violins to the firsts, or to name them as principals. Although he could make such a decision all by himself, usually a maestro had others listening and solicited their opinion. Only when such advice went contrary to his wishes, a second, private audition was held, to justify a move. Today's orchestras are smarter and everyone has to compete. That doesn't automatically mean that the best candidates win, as there are orchestras where half of the concertmasters family has "won" auditions or a girlfriend is chosen over a more capable player. Many East Coast orchestras have numerous such stories.

More on the actually stupid way musicians are elected through the audition process will follow later.