On being overly picky at auditions

My brother-in-bratsche-blogging Charles Noble writes on his Daily Observations blog about an audition that happened in Portland, where he is assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony. He’s not happy about what happened to some of his freelance colleagues:

There was an orchestral audition that took place this weekend at the local opera company. It was an audition for nine violin positions. There were twelve applicants. Of these twelve, two were advanced out of the preliminary round to the finals. It isn’t clear if anyone was offered a position at the time this was being written. This is inexcusable.

I know many of those violinists who took this audition, and they are all superb musicians, and a good number of them are the best violinists in the city, freelance or otherwise. How is it that so few managed to meet the obviously high bar that the committee set for these auditions? I find it hard to believe that out of such a high quality field that only two were found worthy – and with NINE open positions to fill!

It also galls me because elitism-by-committee at any level of ensemble is deeply abhorrent to me. Auditions that result in no-hires, with some exceptions, occur because a committee is run by (or bullied by) one or more musicians who think that only they know what quality is, and are of the opinion that, if you aren’t inhumanly tough, you’re lowering your standards, and that’s just not acceptable within the hallowed halls of insert-orchestra-name-here. Please! Give me a break!

I’m not sure I agree with him about the usual cause of no-hire auditions; that’s not been my general experience. But he’s right that it’s way too easy for committees – or conductors – to get too picky, and for the wrong reasons. I think it has to do with auditions being only peripherally about the skills necessary to play in an orchestra; or, to be more accurate, not about all the skills required.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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