Sometimes it's hard to have a screened audition

The New York Times reported yesterday on an odd incident at the New York Philharmonic:

During a run of concerts that included Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall, ending on Tuesday evening, the Philharmonic declined to identify a substitute principal clarinetist even though the music director, Alan Gilbert, had singled him out for a solo bow. (The symphony’s Adagio movement has a particularly delectable and prominent clarinet solo.)

The orchestra has been trying out potential successors to Stanley Drucker, who retired in September after 60 years on the job. Open auditions last season failed to produce a winner of the seat, so the orchestra has been inviting candidates to spend time playing with it. Such tryouts are common; they give the conductor, the rest of the woodwind section, and more generally the whole orchestra, a chance to see if the marriage will work.

For paying customers at Avery Fisher Hall and future broadcast listeners who might want to know, the clarinetist was Burt Hara, the highly regarded principal of the Minnesota Orchestra. He has been there since 1987.

…Why the secrecy regarding Mr. Hara?

The Philharmonic argues, in part, that any public judgment on a candidate could influence the audition process. But anonymity is also imposed “essentially for the sake of the players, both to protect their current positions and to protect their reputations,” Mr. Latzky said. “We strive to create the most fair, pure and clean process possible. Anonymity is a key part of that process.”

Uhhh…He’s sitting in the orchestra playing a concert. To whom is he supposed to be “anonymous”? Not to the members of the NY Phil; I’d bet that someone asked him who he was. Likely not to the members of the Minnesota Orchestra, who might have noticed his absence from their ranks and enquired about it. Nor, I would be bet, to the denizens of the clarinetosphere; I assume there are clarinet listservs and blogs populated by clarinetists privy to the juicy gossip in the clarinet world and eager to share it with their fellow sinners.

A deep-seated sense of secrecy permeates auditions, a result of laudable efforts to eliminate bias and favoritism. Preliminary auditioners, before they try out in concerts, often perform behind a screen so the committee of orchestra members listening to them can make judgments purely on the merits of their playing.

Why, then, was Mr. Hara asked to take a bow?

Because it was a piece with a big clarinet solo which he likely played beautifully? Because that’s how orchestras work?

The incident points to the inherent tensions within the orchestra beast. An orchestra plays as a collective in which unity of purpose, togetherness and blending are critical and highly developed qualities. At the same time many of those players, highly trained virtuosos, have spotlight moments when they play solo lines. Orchestra players, like most performers, have strong egos, but they must put themselves at the service of a group effort.

No; the incident points to a management doing something dumb by trying to keep a secret from the audience, whose opinions don’t matter in the audition process anyway.

It’s like having a guest conductor during a music director search but refusing to tell the audience his/her name because conductors don’t like to appear to be trying out for music director gigs. Obviously that wouldn’t fly. But why should the audience be kept in the dark about the identity of any member of the orchestra, much less the principal clarinet? Especially when everyone whose opinion matters is already in on the secret.

Orchestra managements sure do some strange things.

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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