Are auditions fair?

Peter Dobrin, in an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the possible departure of Philly clarinetist Ricardo Morales for the New York Phil, is skeptical:

Lurking in the background is the hypocrisy that has long run through orchestral personnel decisions.

Both players and management have held that talent is the sole criterion for determining who gets into the Philadelphia Orchestra. The process is “squeaky clean,” in the words of one former orchestra leader.

There can be no prejudice or favoritism, they argue, since auditions happen behind screens.

Except when they don’t.

Morales auditioned not only without a screen, but in public, when he played concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa also exposed his identity for all to see when he recently auditioned (unsuccessfully) for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in concert, and the Philadelphia followed the same path in its previous search for a concertmaster.

When orchestral musicians feign perplexity on the question of why orchestras aren’t more diverse – but we use audition screens! – the disingenuousness is insulting.

But the orchestra regularly asks us to accept an equally ludicrous proposition: that when auditions draw hundreds of aspirants, the most qualified musician just happens to be related to someone already in the organization. Morales has two relatives in the orchestra: his wife, second violinist Amy Oshiro-Morales, who joined in 2008, and sister-in-law Dara Morales, who came aboard in 2007.

More than a dozen members of the orchestra are related to each other – not counting several more who were, until recent retirements or resignations, entangled in one way or another.

On balance, has the hiring of spouses, partners, children, and in-laws been justified by first landing their stupendously talented relatives?

It’s subjective. But once you engage in this practice, you lose moral authority, and you certainly can’t maintain that music is the sole criterion for hiring. Moral authority is something that an institution should be able to claim at a time when the orchestra’s artistic integrity hangs in the balance.

I don’t think the fact that musicians related to orchestra members sometimes get hired by the same orchestra proves the existence of hypocrisy, or nepotism, in the hiring process. Obviously one could conclude from the instances he cites that auditions are rigged. But there are other possible explanations as well, and I think they’re more plausible ones.

It’s not surprising that musicians good enough to get jobs are related to other musicians good enough to get jobs, for example. Husbands and wives often meet at the same top music schools, or sometimes while both were working in other orchestras. We recently hired a horn player who is married to one of our principals – but they both moved here when the principal was hired, and the horn player made it through screened preliminary and semi-finals to make it to the finals. They met while working in another orchestra, so clearly they were both good enough to win auditions.

I suspect that sheer proximity to an orchestra matters as well. There are, I believe, more bassists in the Chicago Symphony who used to play here than from any other orchestra. It’s possible we have had a uniquely wonderful tradition of bass playing here in Milwaukee. More likely is that our bassists can drive to every CSO bass audition rather than having to pay for 2 airplane tickets.

It’s also true that, if no clear winner emerges from the finals of an audition (which is often the case, in my experience), any candidate that has a positive history as a sub or extra with the orchestra will benefit from that. Family members of current orchestra members will usually try hard to get on the orchestra’s sub list, as will many other freelancers. If they are viewed as being good subs by the audition committee, that can matter in a close call. And, of course, it can work the other way as well.

Philly is an orchestra that has long had a reputation of hiring Curtis graduates – not a bad thing in and of itself, given the status of Curtis. The fact that many of the principals teach there suggests that the orchestra actually has a style of playing in mind when they hire.

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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