Why don't orchestras promote from within?

Over the course of more years than I care to remember I’ve heard lots and lots of auditions. But it was brought home to me again the other day, at another audition, that I’ve only ever heard one audition that resulted in a section musician winning a permanent titled position in their own orchestra.

It does appear to be a rare event in our business. I know of only a handful of instances in other orchestras (I was one when I was in St. Paul). In fact, it seems to happen about as frequently as musicians who were acting titled musicians being awarded the permanent position without auditions, which is odd considering that most of those would require a contractual waiver by the whole orchestra. So what’s going on?

First of all it’s worth noting that this is not just limited to orchestra musicians. When was the last time you heard of the assistant conductor being promoted to music director? Promotions from within are far more common in orchestra staffs, although I can’t recall a single instance of an orchestra hiring a CEO from its current staff (Brent Assink, President and CEO in San Francisco, had been the #2 there before going to St. Paul as CEO, where he’s also been the #2 before going to SF as #2 – but even that is quite unusual.)

But orchestra musicians face some additional obstacles beyond the apparent reluctance to believe that only an outsider can be an effective institutional leader. The first is the audition process.

It’s worth remembering that, given the numbers of candidates that show up at auditions for full-time orchestras, the odds are strongly against any given candidate winning the job. While there are a bare handful of freaks of nature who win every audition they play, most of us who have won auditions have also lost our share – sometimes for the same position. One of our star principals in Milwaukee had auditioned here a few years before he won and didn’t even make the finals. While auditions aren’t a random process, there certainly are elements of chance at every audition, ranging from how well-rested a given candidate is to who’s on the audition committee and what they expect to hear.

An internal candidate auditioning for a position against 50 to 250 candidates coming from outside may be no more disadvantaged by being one of a large group – but it certainly doesn’t help their chances.

And then there’s the weirdness of the orchestra audition itself; what one observer called “the twelve-minute shootout.” Our industry has spent decades refining this process in search of fairness and efficiency and has generally succeeded in achieving both goals. But, in doing so, we’ve created a process that measures skills that ironically are easier to achieve and maintain for musicians who don’t already have jobs.

Anyone who’s done the audition circuit (and that’s most of us who work in orchestras) will remember that auditions get easier with practice. The Chicago Symphony has several bassists who used to be here in Milwaukee; my theory regarding their comparative dominance of CSO bass audition is that bassists here could afford to go to every CSO bass audition because they could easily drive there. Practice made perfect.

But someone who’s already in an orchestra as a section musician is likely not on the circuit for every titled job for their instrument; often the audition they take for the titled job in their own orchestra is the first audition they’ve taken for a while. That already puts them behind the eight-ball compared to the likely competition, especially in the finals. And, in the finals, they’re going to be playing for their boss and their colleagues, which considerably ups the ante and inevitably their level of performance anxiety.

When I auditioned for principal in St. Paul, I had only been there for two seasons, and had auditioned for a couple of principal positions elsewhere during that time – but I was still scared to death at that audition. In fact, that was probably the scariest audition I ever took, and it felt like it was mostly due to the fact that the committee were all people I knew and respected, and really wanted to impress.

The biggest hurdle for people trying to move up in their orchestras is not audition-related, though (nor is it unique to orchestras). It’s related to a maxim that one of my quartet colleagues often quoted: “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” When we look at someone we know well – and in orchestras, we all know each other very well indeed – what we know the best is their faults.

It is very easy, when choosing between someone we know and someone we don’t to hire, to assume that the person we don’t know won’t have the kind of flaws that only become apparent after working with someone for a while. And generally they won’t have the same flaws as those that drive us crazy about those we know. They’ll have different ones, which will also drive us crazy – but only after they’ve got tenure.

There are occasions when this gets flipped around, of course. Sometimes acting titled musicians, or even long-term substitute section musicians, show strengths that are so obvious that there develops a consensus that an audition would be unlikely to produce a winner who would do as well in the job. I can recall three instances in my time in Milwaukee where that happened, although all of them involved a great deal of internal discussion and debate before the orchestra agreed to waive the audition requirement.

But that’s two more than the number of times an internal candidate actually won a permanent titled position through a national audition. Evidently the precise alignment of the stars required for that to happen is very rare indeed.

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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