Mission: To seek and share inspiration

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Fine-Tuning an Expanding CSO


by Diana M. Lara

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FOOTSTEPS APPROACH before he hears a knock at the door. “Number 44*, you have ten minutes until you’re up,” says the CSO staff member with a smile as she opens the door. He is in one of several musician warm-up rooms rehearsing for the last time. He is familiar with the repertoire, having received it months prior. Number 44 had responded to a post in The International Musician for viola auditions, and now his moment has arrived. A brief moment...30 years in the making…with more than 15,000 practice hours studying and sharpening his viola skills. These next eight minutes could change the course of his career, landing him his dream job playing with one of the top symphony orchestras in the country.

Number 44 had flown from the West Coast the night before. He had been given a time slot and asked to arrive promptly, one hour before his scheduled audition. The Uber from his hotel to Music Hall did not take very long. It is his first time in Cincinnati and the first time his eyes would briefly take in the immense beauty of the building’s historic Gothic architecture. Upon arrival, directional signs lead him to a check-in desk where staff members verify his information and assign him his number. From the repertoire list previously received, he is told which excerpts and in what order they should be played for the Committee.

Every CSO musician can relate to the journey of Number 44. As part of its commitment to continue growing the Orchestra, the CSO scheduled four dates between November 2017 and May 2018 on which to hold auditions for section viola, Principal Bassoon, Principal Clarinet, Associate Concertmaster and First Assistant Concertmaster. A combined total of 382 musicians from across the globe auditioned for an opportunity to win one of seven coveted seats with the CSO. One candidate traveled 8,015 miles from Hong Kong to audition. All travel, lodging and food expenses are the responsibility of the candidates. On average they have less than ten minutes in the preliminary round to impress the Audition Committee in hopes of being invited to the next round.

     …Number 44’s ten-minute wait is now over; it is his time to play. Following behind the staff member, viola and bow in hand, he walks down a corridor filled with the sounds of other violists practicing behind closed doors.

In all, there were 196 viola candidates and only three spots to fill. Audition days are lengthy, averaging about 12 hours for CSO staff members to assist all candidates through the process.

       …Another hallway leads to a set of double glass doors. Number 44 is introduced to a proctor who escorts him from this point. He catches a glimpse of the red carpet leading to the stage.

Paul Pietrowski, Director of Orchestra Personnel for the CSO, says the purpose of rolling out the red carpet is not to welcome candidates as royalty but instead to hide the sound of their footwear or gait in their stride, eliminating any possible bias. Several guidelines for auditions are agreed upon between CSO management and the Musicians’ Union. Paul explains, “This includes the CSO using a blind audition process to conceal a candidate’s age, gender and race. In this manner, we neutralize the audition process for everyone. They are not permitted to use their voices either.”

       …The proctor gives instructions to Number 44 to walk only on the red carpet. No talking. If he has a question for the Committee or a problem, he must signal and whisper to the proctor, who will serve as his voice. The Audition Committee can address the candidate with instructions, or ask that they move on to the next selection, but the candidate is not to answer.

The Audition Committee consists of full-time, tenured musicians from the section (in this case, viola), or similar instrumental sections (in this case, other strings), including principal players and elected members from other sections, the Concertmaster, and Louis Langrée, Music Director of the CSO.

       …The proctor opens the stage door. Number 44 has come so far. Literally. He makes his way down the red carpet toward the middle of the stage. A black-draped screen spanning 40 feet wide and 10 feet high separates him from the Committee. A single chair and music stand are all that sit on the enormous stage normally occupied by more than 80 musicians.

“This is often the first time the musician sees the stage and the beauty inside Music Hall. We often see the ‘Wow!’ expression on their faces,” Paul describes, having served as proctor many times.

       …Number 44 begins playing through the excerpt list in order. If he is selected to advance to the semi-final and final rounds the following day, he will be asked to play additional excerpts from the repertoire list in an extended audition.

Often only two or three musicians make it to the final round, which is the most intense. This is where the Audition Committee really tests the remaining candidates. They are challenged with the most demanding excerpts. The candidate who best convinces the Audition Committee with his or her skills receives the offer.

       …The preliminary audition for Number 44 lasts nearly eight minutes. Following the audition, he is taken to the Green Room, where he waits with other violists from his time-slot to learn whether he has made it to the semi-finals.

The wait could last a couple of hours, depending on how many candidates were scheduled. After the Committee votes, Paul makes his way to the Green Room and shares the results with the hopeful musicians. Those chosen to advance are told what time to arrive for the semi-final round the next day. Those who are not chosen must gather up their belongings and return home. For Number 44, the preliminaries would be the end of his audition process. He would not advance to the semi-finals this time around; however, he plans to audition again.

At the conclusion of all four auditions, the CSO selected six new musicians to add to its growing roster. This season begins with 87 full-time musicians. Upcoming editions of Fanfare will feature these new musicians and new appointees. This month hundreds more will audition for Assistant Principal Horn and another section viola seat.

Incoming and newly appointed musicians for the 2018–19 season, as a result of recent auditions, are (from left, alphabetical order): Stefani Matsuo, newly appointed Associate Concertmaster (she had been a section violinist with the CSO since 2015); Christopher Fischer, section violist; Caterina Longhi, section violist;

Philip Marten, First Assistant Concertmaster; Charles Morey, section violinist; Christopher Pell, Principal Clarinet; and  

Christopher Sales, Principal Bassoon.

* To protect candidate anonymity, “Number 44” is used in this article to represent a combination of several viola section candidates followed on their audition journey.