Mon. 12/12: Violoncello Society of NY: Expert Advice on How to Audition (But Is It for the Orchestra of the Titanic?)

Monday evening I attended the Violoncello Society of New York’s evening program at the elegant Kosciuszko Foundation. Nick Anderson, a vice president of the Society, invited me to attend as his guest. (After the event we had supper and a long talk at an Upper West Side coffee shop where the comedian Jackie Mason was in a near-by booth.) I enjoyed not only the formal program but also meeting a number of New York colleagues.

New York Philharmonic cellists Eric Bartlett and Carter Brey (principal) and Juilliard Quartet cellist and Juilliard cello teacher Joel Krosnick formed a panel who listened to four young cellists play and gave them and the assembled audience advice on preparing for auditions, especially orchestra auditions.

Some key recurring points:

  • Choose pieces you are comfortable with and play really well. Don’t be ashamed to play the Saint-Saëns or Lalo concertos for a major symphony audition–there’s no such thing as an “easy” concerto, and it’s how well you play it that really counts.
  • Be sure you have your entire solo pieces prepared, so that despite the fact you can be 99% sure you’ll only play the exposition or so, you won’t be worrying about what will happen if you are asked to play a portion you have not prepared well.
  • Don’t overplay, especially in a small space. Play for the room you are in, and emphasize beauty of sound over raw energy.
  • Highly idiosyncratic performances even in solo pieces will set off “alarm bells” for audition committee members (especially in orchestra auditions).
  • But don’t play blandly or anonymously. Have a definite concept not only of your solos but also of the excerpts. Carter emphasized strongly the benefits of understanding the harmonic context of a melody, and demonstrated a number of times at the piano. Eric emphasized making appropriate changes of style for different composers, especially timbre (i.e., quite different for Debussy than for Brahms).
  • Practice playing dissimilar excerpts in quick succession to get used to quickly changing styles.
  • Solid, accurate rhythm is crucial.
  • Practice auditions are very valuable. Invite a small group of trusted friends to listen to you a number of times, keeping the format as much like an actual audition as possible.
  • Carter emphasized a number of times that he and virtually all committee members have great empathy for those auditioning, having been through the same experiences a number of times themselves. They want to hear each person at her or his best.
  • Being interrupted fairly quickly isn’t necessarily a bad sign; it could be that it is immediately clear that the person plays well. Sometimes a committee will have a weak-sounding candidate play longer in order to give them a chance to settle down.
  • Take your time between works/excerpts. Take a deep breath, get settled, and mentally prepareyourselff for the next piece.

I was impressed by the warmth, friendliness, and genuine interest of all three panelists and by the high level of playing of all four students. The panelists were generous with their time, giving each student approximately 30 minutes. This didn’t leave any time for questions and comments from the audience, which might have been quite interersting.

The panel worked so hard to put everyone at ease that I found myself wondering if they were pulling punches overly much. There was little direct feedback to any of the students as to how their playing would served them in a real audition, especially on the key issue of whether this would have been a good audition or not. I had expected comments more along the line of, “if this had been a NY Phil audition, I would have (not) voted for you to continue to the next round because of X, Y, and Z,” but that wasn’t the approach taken.

Team teaching is always a challenge; balancing the roles of three teachers and giving each equal time is pretty much impossible without a moderator. Carter dominated the discussion, doing the majority of the speaking and all the demonstrating. This seemed a function more of his enthusiasm and ability to quickly articulate concepts than any other dynamic. He often tried to pass the torch to one of the other two, to be sure. I would have been interested to hear more from Krosnick in particular, who did the least speaking; perhaps another time.

The elegant surroundings brought to my mind the image of the orchestra playing while the Titanic sank. Many people believe that the ship of traditional classical music, especially full-time orchestras, is sinking. Greg Sandow is writing a lot about this:

Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money; media coverage is shrinking, there’s a lot less classical music on the radio, and the classical record business is collapsing (or at least the largest classical record labels are). Classical music also plays a smaller part in our culture than it used to.

As I commented in my reflection about Sunday’s Juilliard Orchestra performance, what are these kids going to do for a living? How are they going to create meaningful adult musical lives for themselves? It’s great to help kids learn how to prepare for traditional orchestra and conservatory auditions, but with fewer and fewer jobs available and more and more exceptional players, what are we doing to prepare students for the new realities? To be creative, to build their own audiences, to make serious music relevant and attractive to audiences?

When the ship is sinking as fast as the Titanic, there’s really not much else to do if you are in the orchestra than to keep playing and savor every last second of music making.

But the classical music ship is sinking slowly, at least right now. There’s time to build a life boat, there’s time to switch to a different ship. I’m not arguing that anyone should disavow hecallingng, or deny himself the opportunity to follow the bliss of making music. But we do need to face the fact that there are declining opportunities to make a living playing traditional, standard orchestra music, and that many of the string players who do so find it makes them miserable (click here for PDF document with an interview about the famous 1991 study of job dissatisfaction among professionaorchestrara players).

I was discussing all this today with a cellist my age who commented on the irony of this. “X idesperatete to get out of the Philharmonic. Y now hates playing in the Meorchestrara but can’t leave because of the money.”

The Titanic is probably not the best metaphor, although it makes strikingng image. Classical music is not going to break into three sections and sink quickly to the ocean floor, never to be seen for a hundred years. It is more like a ship which sinks in fairly shallow water and comes to rest only partially submerged.

Some full-time orchestras will survive and continue to thrive. But full-time orchestras with year-round seasons are, frankly, a historical anomaly; in the U.S., as far as I know, they are essentially a post-WWII phenomena.

The general public fascinationon with and respect for the largely European canon of classical music is dissolving. I’m not aware of anyone who has looked closely at the economics and sociology of classical music who doesn’t believe that we will be seeing some significant downsizing of full-year, full-time symphony orchestras and other traditional serious arts organizations working from a European model.

This was a wonderful, informative event, there’s no question about that, with a panel who really knew their stuff. It was a loving sharing of career advice from one generation to the next. The question won’t leave my mind, though: is this the career advice the kids most need? It’s fine that this wasn’t an event intended to provide that other, forward-looking, reality-based advice. Are they getting it elsewhere? I didn’t get the sense Monday night that they are.


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