Orchestra Digest: October 28

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This week: Good news from Chicago, legislative wrangling in Minnesota, saving the day in Shanghai, and bad news or just bad journalism?
The good, the bad, and the ugly
The Chicago Symphony's financial health is good, the Chicago Tribune reports. The orchestra set fundraising records for the third straight year, and finished with a relatively insignificant deficit. 
The latest Milwaukee Symphony financials are not so great - a $1.8 million deficit, on recorded income of $15.86 million, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. Former Journal Sentinel music critic Tom Strini also weighed in on the crisis, arguing for the orchestra's value and calling on music director Edo de Waart to take a more proactive stance. 
Minnesota state leaders are debating the value and funding of their leading cultural asset: the Minnesota Orchestra. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on former Gov. Arne Carlson's call for increased public support. 
Meanwhile, some Minnesota legislators are wondering whether previously approved funding should be revoked. The Star Tribune reports on controversy over $16 million in funding for Orchestra Hall renovations. 
The New York City Opera has been liquidated, but post-mortems continue. New York Times business writer James B. Stewart looks at the poor investing strategies that caused the NYCO endowment to dwindle from $51.6 million in 2001 to just $5.2 million by June 2013.
ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge posted an essay deploring a run of recent, negative stories in the press, including an October 5th radio piece on NPR: "It's Been a Really Bad Week for Classical Music". NPR host Arun Rath replied with a letter, and an apology on Twitter.

Read more: Orchestra Digest: October 28

Thoughts on the Orchestral Audition

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by David Bourque, Bass clarinetist (retired), Toronto Symphony

This article will stir up some discussions in orchestra musicians and strong, disparate opinions will be voiced. So, here we go…

The following statement is true and nothing has been changed to protect the innocent: the orchestral audition does not identify the best candidate for the orchestral position, rather it identifies who can play all the hard bits in one sitting. Sometimes the identified player is the best candidate for the position, but in some instances, the chosen player is not the best candidate to actually do the job.

I know, I know. Some of you are saying, “I went through this process – everyone should have to do the same thing.” I ask, “Why does everyone have to go through a process that has little to do with the job?”

I have seen many orchestral auditions, I have taken my share of them and I was fortunate enough to win one of them and come close in others. In my experience, the orchestral audition is an anachronistic device that has long outlived its usefulness and relevance. There is no other profession in the world that uses a system like the orchestral audition:

  • Where, besides at an orchestral audition, are the candidates not interviewed for interpersonal skills in addition to demonstrating their professional skills?
  • Where does an applicant have to demonstrate the ability to do everything difficult in their field in 25 minutes even though this ability will never present in 
the real-work situation?
  • In what business does the interview/audition process 
have so little to do with the actual job (i.e. “playing alone” versus “in a section”; flexibility in tuning, balance, blend; when was the last time a second player played the Mozart concerto with their orchestra)?
  • In what business does experience not play a major role in the job interview-hiring process? A player with significant orchestral experience may get advanced to the second round where they are put through points 1, 2, and 3 above. That is the sole nod to their valuable experience. How is that remotely adequate, and how does that demonstrate this candidate’s experience? Would you not think that someone who has played major repertoire in an orchestra has something to offer that is not identified in the current audition process? 

While there are some exceptions, the system used by audition committees all over the world is rife with abuse; committees do things like having players fly in at their own expense from far away only to play five minutes and be told “Thanks for coming.” They hear 50 applicants and choose no one for the job. Do you think that highly qualified applicants for a corporate position would tolerate this treatment? Orchestra committees sometime hold multiple auditions for the same opening over a period of years. Is the committee waiting for another player to be born, grow up and trained to fill the opening? At some subconscious level, they may be looking for “the same” player who has just retired after many years of working with them. I have seen this happen in Toronto for two major principal jobs. This search is destined to be fruitless, and I have seen many excellent players passed over for jobs and the wrong players hired, only to not be granted tenure.

The orchestral audition came to be in the 1950’s as a result of music directors and managers abusing the hiring process by hiring their buddies, but that time is long past, and even if it were not, there must now be another way to ensure that this abuse in hiring does not reoccur. Currently, there seems to be no better system than the orchestral audition. We must find a better way.

Orchestra committees are accustomed to hearing an instrument in the full orchestra context, and often while they themselves are playing. They are not accustomed to hearing wind (string, brass) instruments on a stand-alone basis as heard at auditions. The edgy, rough playing that can often be requisite in an orchestral wind section is an anathema at auditions. A friend of mine and bass clarinet colleague, who plays in a major U.S. orchestra, said, “the goal lately (at auditions) seems to be to insult the fewest people. Actually playing as loud as we do in an orchestra, while totally necessary to do the job, insults some people at the auditions.”

Experienced players will come to an audition and play the excerpts how they should be played in the or- chestra and, in most cases, this will get them bounced from the process. In an orchestral wind section, forte can be extremely loud and sometimes coarse, the attacks of notes can be very hard-sounding, and the staccati can sound silly when they are played as short as they need to be in the wind section context. In order to guard against an early exit from the audition, excerpts must be played on a small scale: never orchestral forte, never too accented, never too short. However, the soft end of the dynamics need to be clearly defined, even exaggerated; in many cases, the excerpt would not be played that soft in the orchestra. Orchestral experience not ‘adapted for audition use’ is a liability at auditions if the player is not aware of the difference between playing an audition and doing the real job. How many great candidates have not been promoted to the next round because they have the audacity to play the excerpts like they really should be played?

What can be done? For starters, let’s interview the person. We will be working with this musician as a colleague, possibly for decades. Would it not be nice to know that the candidate understands what is required to work with people and in an orchestral section? Can we find a way to always have the candidate play in the orchestra as part of the audition process, not just for ten minutes with four other candidates, but for a week or two? The trend toward video auditions could well lend itself to this approach as it could be the filter. By being invited to play in the orchestra as part of their audition, candidates could show what they really know that is relevant to doing the job.

We are creative people, that’s what we do. In order to find a new way for finding excellent players to fill positions in our orchestras, we are only limited by under- utilizing the creativity that is so much a part of our being. There is another way, we just need to find it.

About the Writer

David Bourque played clarinet and bass clarinet in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1983–2011. He can be reached through his website.


Orchestra Digest: October 10

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This week: Festive Montreal, kudos for Muti, musicians joining management, Vanska's farewell concerts in Minnesota, the NACO tours Hong Kong, and much more....

Success stories
Let's do the good news first: Broadway World reports that the Houston Symphony finished a record-breaking 2012-13 season, setting new high marks for attendance and contributions. 
The Detroit Symphony's fundraising jumped 43% to a record $18.9 million, the Free Press reports, driven by strong support from board members, and jumps in individual, corporate, and foundation giving.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's concert last week at Carnegie Hall was cancelled due to a strike by stagehands. But the Orchestra and music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin still played the concert for an appreciative hometown audience at the Kimmel Center, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Reporting in the Huffington Post, critic Laurence Vittes called the Montreal Symphony "a top-tier ensemble" and praised the city's vibrant cultural scene. Vittes focused on the OSM's festival, "A Cool Classical Journey," and its Mozartian offerings. 
Toronto Star columnist William Littler reports on Kansas City's shiny new opera house, the Muriel Kauffman Theater, which was designed by architect Moshe Safdie. Safdie proposed a similar project for Toronto in the 1980's, though it was rejected in favour of the scaled-down Four Seasons Centre, designed by architect Jack Diamond. 
Negotiations are continuing at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, two weeks after musicians unanimously voted to authorize a strike. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel reports on the latest developments. 
Many media outlets covered last weekend's concerts by the locked-out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by their departing music director, Osmo Vanska: the Minneapolis Star TribuneNew York Times, and Limelight Magazine, among others. Minnesota Public Radio broadcasted the concert live, and may still make it available as an archived recording.
The Journal-Sentinel reports on a $1.8 million deficit posted by the Milwaukee Symphony last season, and the reaction from the MSO's board and their new president, Mark Niehaus. Both are seeking long-term solutions to the disappointing results. 
The New York Times covered the trend of experienced symphonic musicians joining management - including Mark Niehaus (formerly the Milwaukee Symphony's principal trumpeter), and New Jersey Symphony President James Roe, who has served the orchestra as principal oboist. 
The New York Times covered the trend of experienced symphonic musicians joining management - including Mark Niehaus (formerly the Milwaukee Symphony's principal trumpeter), and New Jersey Symphony President James Roe, who has served the orchestra as principal oboist. 
Chicago Symphony music director Riccardo Muti has been "an unexpectedly galvanizing hit", the New York Times reports, and a genuine elder statesman for classical music in America. 
Dick Matthews, a co-founder of the Calgary Philharmonic, passed away last week at the age of 93, the Calgary Herald reportsCBC also covered Matthews' passing, with remembrances from CPO president Ann Lewis-Luppino.
And a story in the London Free Press focuses attention on city council member and Orchestra London executive director Joe Swan. Swan is walking a conflict of interest tightrope, as the council considers opposing proposals for a new concert hall.
NACO in China
Reports of the National Arts Centre Orchestra's tour are just starting to come in: the Ottawa Citizen covered NACO's first, sold-out concert in Hong Kong and a visit to a primary school in the same city
The Toronto Star also reviewed the concert in Hong Kong, which featured a composition by Chinese Canadian composer Alexina Louie.
Compiled by Matt Heller, Calgary Philharmonic and OCSM Past President. Sources include the discussion groups of ICSOM and ROPA. Visit OCSM online at: http://ocsm-omosc.org/index.php
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