Classical music auditions aren't for sissies

It seems like the epitome of meritocracy. Can you imagine going to a job interview and not being judged by your clothes, personality, connections, sex appeal, or even experience? Where the only criterion is your ability?

That's the way most classical music auditions work. An adjudicating panel listens to soloists play from behind a screen, without seeing resumes or names. Candidates can't talk and have to whisper questions to a proctor. And my favorite part: a cloth runner is even put down, to deaden the sound of high heels clicking and eliminate the chance of subconscious sexism — or perhaps prejudice against squeaky shoe-wearers.

Brent Price, a young violinist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, talked candidly about the audition process. He's given several, as well as having sat on a panel and been the union steward, who's positioned where he can see both sides of the screen, "to make sure there's no hanky-panky going on."

"[Auditions are] pretty much the horror show of the classical music scene," Price says. "I hate the screen. I think it de-intimacizes music. With the screen, you hit a few wrong notes, you're gone, bye, whatever."

Many musicians, especially young ones, are continually trying out for new jobs. The CSO is one of the top orchestras in the South (in fact the only one in the state that holds national auditions for 46 core members), but the fact remains that we're a small market. So, just as with those young reporters on the local news with the great cheekbones, Charleston is sometimes a stepping stone.

Price estimates that the average audition costs a musician $500. There's airfare, a rental car, a hotel room if you don't have a friend to crash with. The CSO requires a deposit to hold your spot.

Then there's preparation. Violinists have a fairly standard repertoire. Price listed Brahms' Violin Concerto, the opening to Richard Strauss's Don Juan, and Mozart's Symphony 39 as common audition pieces, but they vary from orchestra to orchestra.

The CSO is holding auditions for a new concertmaster next month. That's the first violin — the quarterback, so to speak. Several other seats were open this summer — bassoon, clarinet, trumpet, horn — and Price sat on the committee for one of them (I won't say which). He described what happened, to show "how fickle panels can be. All bets are off; there are no guarantees." He made it clear the CSO process is by no means out of the ordinary.

"Twenty-five people signed up, but only 23 were there for the first round. The others freaked out, left, whatever. It happens all the time." (Speaking of nerves, Price says he's not ashamed to admit that he takes beta blockers for every audition, to prevent "shaky bow." And he says he doesn't know a musician who doesn't take them. But that's an issue for another column.)

Anyway, back to our audition horror story. They're typically three rounds. Of the original 23, five musicians made the second round, and only one made the final. But that didn't mean she'd won the chair.

"She played," Price says, "and her weakest round was the final round."

The CSO takes down the screen for the last round, when three or fewer candidates remain. The committee got to see her resume and voted that she didn't have enough experience, so no one was chosen.

Three months later, the position was reauditioned, and once again only one person made the final round. When the screen was removed, the same young woman was standing there.

She got the job.


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