• Band and Orchestra Auditions, by Dr. Jerry Young


    Appendix III: Orchestra Conductors

    Zubin Mehta Interview Summary

    This interview was held at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on February 24, 1998. Those present were Maestro Mehta, Jerry Young (the interviewer), and Gene Pokorny, tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The interview lasted approximately forty minutes. Maestro Mehta has enjoyed an illustrious career wherein, in addition to being Music Director and Conductor of some of the world's finest orchestras (most notably, Los Angeles, New York and Israel Philharmonics), he has guest conducted virtually every major orchestra in the world multiple times. Mr. Mehta made a remarkable forty-five hires during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic alone. As a result of the various music directorships he has held and the numerous auditions he has conducted, he has an unusually intense interest in the audition process. The interview was somewhat "free-flowing." What follows is a summary of Maestro Mehta's comments on a variety of topics.

    On audition committees

    Auditions should not be conducted by elected general committees, but by experts in the various instrumental areas, i.e. brass players should listen to brass auditions, string players to string auditions, etc. One "set" committee should exist for each instrument. A player must fit into the section concept of sound and style for any given orchestra, and those who participate in creating that concept are best qualified to make that determination.

    On audition procedures

    The audition should be extremely well organized to the smallest details. The audition should be administrated in such a way that the auditionee is able to play and only play for the duration of the audition with no distractions for either auditionee or committee. Music should be organized on the stand so that the auditionee only needs to turn the page to the next passage to be performed, etc.

    Open discussion among committee members is important throughout the audition process - even if the discussion is heated. He believes that open discussion is important to getting the best result and that it usually does.

    In the final round (where the music director is participating), Mehta believes that every candidate should be fully heard - nothing should "end the audition." Everyone may present something with which the Maestro might disagree, however, later in the audition, that might be offset by something else. Individuals have prepared a lifetime to get to the finals of a major orchestral audition. The Maestro and the committee owe a full hearing to that person.

    From the music director's chair, Mehta will make the final hiring decision (which is customary), however, he does listen to the audition committee's opinions and judgements. Usually he is in agreement with the committee - could only remember two occasions where he deviated from the audition committee's recommendation. He also expressed concern over the lack of diversity in American orchestras.

    On sight reading in orchestral auditions

    Sight reading is really not a valuable item in determining how well a candidate will do the job, as this skill is not really part of the job. In "the real world" of orchestral playing, music for any given concert is available well in advance. (He once fired a librarian for not having music available for early preparation.) The ability to prepare repertoire is an important part of the job. One should know the repertoire for one's instrument coming into the audition to the fullest extent possible.

    On stage presence/visual impression

    Visual impact in the audition is very important. The comment was not directed so much at dress as at the appearance of the candidate with relation to his/her instrument. The person should appear "natural" and comfortable with the instrument. Specific reference was made to a "natural" and normal appearing bow arm for string players. Object lesson: if one has an unnatural or unusal approach or mannerisms in one's playing, one should strive to eliminate them before taking professional auditions.

    On musical preferences/building musicianship

    Maestro Mehta feels that most orchestral musicians lead a robot-like musical life, only thinking of producing what they are told to produce from the podium - which certainly is one part of their job. He wants to hear auditions that exhibit some individual musical integrity and passion - these qualities are more important than technical perfection (although this statement should not imply a lack of value placed on technical proficiency on the Maestro's part). His strong feelings on these issues caused him to start the New York Philharmonic Chamber Music Series. He wanted to encourage orchestral musicians to develop better musical habits and sensitivity and felt that chamber music performance was the best avenue to those goals. Chamber music performance demands soloistic skills, and great soloists should make great orchestral players. Imagination and creativity can play a role in orchestral music making. The idea is not create anarchy, but to create a dialogue between players and between players and conductor.

    On qualities sought in tuba players

    Maestro Mehta prefers a big sound paired with the ability to produce different colors on demand and a good understanding of the variety of musical styles and how the instrument fits into those styles. The tubist's duty is principally to provide a "rock bottom" to reinforce overtones throughout the orchestra.

    Eiji Oue Interview Summary

    Eiji Oue, a native of Hiroshima, Japan, has been Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1995. He is also Music Director of the Grand Teton Festival (Wyoming) and Radio-

    Philharmonie Hannover (Germany). Prior to coming to Minnesota he was Music Director of the Erie (Pennsylvania) Philharmonic and Associate Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Maestro Oue, a student and protege of Leonard Bernstein, has conducted major orchestras around the world and also is a particularly strong advocate of local orchestral outreach activities of all descriptions.

    1. What are the core musical values that you listen for in audition final rounds and that determine your decision in hiring any new orchestra member?
      • Individuality/personality: musical character!! Missing a few notes is much less important than one's ability to demonstrate musicality. Auditionees should not be afraid to "take a chance." The person who ONLY plays all the right notes will probably not be a winner. O.E. is looking for someone who is going to add to the ensemble - not necessarily "just fit in" with everyone else.

    2. Are there one or two things that you might hear in any audition that will automatically end the audition?
      • NEVER!! Finalists have gone to considerable trouble to get to that point, and they deserve to be heard.
      • NOTE: E.O. tries to talk to each finalist individually after the audition is ended. His intent is to provide encouragement and advice.

    3. Do you have any specific and/or unique things that you seek from a tuba player in the audition situation?
      • The tuba player in particular really needs to "know the score" (literally). O.E. likes to see tuba players who come to rehearsals with scores. For the tubist (maybe more than anyone), knowing just "the excerpts" is not enough. The tubist should even know the movements where he/she doesn't play! The tubist must be one of the best musicians in the orchestra, as well as being both accurate and musically aggressive. If the tubist is without energy, the orchestra is dead. O.E.'s favorite "telling" audition passages would be the Mahler First Symphony solo (phrasing), passages from Don Quixote, and the end of Symphonie Fantastique (rhythm and energy).

    4. Any other comments for young people preparing for auditions or about auditions in general that you would like to add?
      • Direct advice: "Know all the music - the entire score. Open your eyes and ears. Imitate the best players on your instrument. (And, of course, study and practice.)"

    General comments:

    Auditions are generally more fair than they have ever been. E.O. doesn't know of any orchestra where racial or gender discrimination is a factor. Orchestras in this country work very hard to be as totally fair as is possible.

    The Music Director enjoys very broad ranging power in this country which is not present in either Europe or Japan (where the orchestra personnel carry the most power in decision making). E.O. sees the power given to the Music Director in this country as a good thing, as long as it is not misused by someone who wields the power "just to show that they can" - which has happened from time to time with certain individuals.

    In making hiring decisions, the joint and open effort between the orchestra's audition committee and the Music Director generally yields the best result for everyone.

    Henry Charles Smith III Interview Summary

    Henry Charles Smith III is Conductor and Music Director of the South Dakota Symphony. He was for many years resident conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and has conducted over 1,000 performances of that organization. He served as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Camp for many years (retired from that position in 1996) and has also served on the conducting faculties of the University of Texas - Austin and Arizona State University. He has also conducted numerous choral ensembles and instrumental chamber ensembles (such as the Summit Brass) and is a gifted arranger and composer. His participation in this project is particularly unique because, prior to his long and extensive experience in the professional conducting world he was principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy. In addition to many other audition experiences, he has listened to many professional auditions both as an orchestra member and as a conductor.

    1. You are very unique in the scope of my project interviewees in that you have participated in auditions both in the role of audition committee member and as maestro. Do you find that there is there any fundamental difference in the way you listen in those two roles?
      • Essentially, there is no fundamental difference. If any difference exists, it may be that when listening as a section principal one has greater empathy with the auditionee. Simply listening as the conductor allows one to be more detached from the performance problems/difficulties of the particular instrument and to focus more on what is actually being produced musically.

    2. What are the core musical values that you are listening for from any auditionee?
      • Right notes, right rhythms, and good intonation! Beyond those basic things, it's always nice to hear playing that is musically interesting.

    3. In listening to auditions wherein you make the hiring decision, might there be anything that could happen (in terms of musical performance) in the course of the "finals" audition that would cause you to terminate the audition?
      • Most obviously, bad playing! HCS usually does a little conducting of each candidate to evaluate whether or not the candidate can actually "follow." Inability to follow could end the audition. If the candidate (by stage presence, direct communication, etc.) displays obvious personality problems, the audition will end more quickly.

    4. How do you feel about the issue of discussion among audition committee members during the course of auditions? Should discussion take place during/after each auditionee? Or should there be (relatively) enforced silence with only a vote? Or are there typically too many rules anyhow???
      • HCS welcomes discussion at all points. Open discussion is a good thing. While the conductor must still make the final decision, it is good for the conductor to hear what others think, and it is indeed possible for the conductor to appropriately assert his/her authority without being domineering.

    5. If there is no screen or if the screen is down for a final round, do you have any advice or comments about a candidate's appearance, grooming, and/or stage presence? Might those things indeed influence a committee's or maestro's hiring decision, all else being equal?
      • Definitely. The candidate should dress and groom with respect for the occasion. In any professional situation (civilian or military) there are dress expectations. For orchestras this is often specified in the contract. Dressing appropriately for the audition recognizes that obligation. The way one dresses is going to send a message to the committee (whether intended or not) about how serious one is about the position.

    6. Comments on sight reading in orchestral auditions?
      • In HCS's early years of taking orchestral auditions himself, sightreading was mandatory: often taken from sight reading texts and usually rather obtuse. In some instances, the sight reading was even conducted. It was a large factor in the audition. Then, as now, it was very important to know the repertoire, but then there were no lists! You were simply expected to know any repertoire that might be asked. Today sight reading appears less and less on orchestral auditions and tends to come from standard repertoire not on the audition list for any particular audition. When the situation arises and an auditionee knows the piece already, it should simply be played without comment. Knowing the repertoire is to one's credit.

    7. Any other general advice for the aspiring orchestral auditionee?
      • Always be ready for this statement: "Play something of your choice." (Whether you're being asked to choose something on or off an audition list.) Have something lyrical and something technical prepared to play at any time, and be prepared to play it well. Something is going to have to set you apart from others to get you to the final round - do something to get the audition committee's attention. BE SURE TO SHOW YOUR STRENGTHS AND HIDE YOUR WEAKNESSES!

    8. Do you have any specific advice relative to tuba auditions? What is important to you as a conductor as you listen to tuba auditions?
      • Beautiful sound, good ear, ability to blend well with basses. Sound and pitch accuracy that the orchestra can build a chord on is critical. The tubist should be able to be an "extrovert" when needed and be able to be a "team player" when needed and know when each character is appropriate. (Too many tubists feel a need to be the consistent extrovert.)

    Other comments:

    1. It's a good idea to have committee members from outside the section where the vacancy occurs.
    2. Auditionees should remember that when one is stopped and asked to do something again (faster, slower, louder, softer, etc.) that this is a GOOD sign, not a bad one. The committee and/or conductor in this situation generally realizes that you are a good performer and wants to know if you are flexible. Sometimes the request may not seem to make good musical sense, but "good musical sense" is most often not the object of the request. Being able to play passages in a variety of ways is an important part of the orchestral player's job.
    3. More accurate and appropriate hiring would probably take place if there were a consistent practice of having finalists play either in the section or (if possible) with the orchestra before final decisions are made.

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