Joshua Bell at an orchestra audition?

May 15, 2014, 4:17 PM · Watching Josh Bell play Sibelius Concerto in rehearsal with the LA Philharmonic today, from my usual seat two feet behind his back, I remembered a statement I’ve heard many times: “You know, most soloists wouldn’t get past the first round of a section audition.” This is one of those statements where truth is less important than intent. In other words, who’s making the statement and why? I smiled as Josh did the things he does, which will add up to great performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

To me, the quote itself strikes me as somewhat silly, akin to saying: “NASCAR drivers couldn’t pass a driving test, just look at the way they drive!” So what’s really behind the statement? I always imagine a sallow, paunchy cellist delivering it, for some reason. Maybe such a person really did say it to me once. He could have meant several different things: committees are made up of idiots and that’s why they would never pick someone good like a soloist; most soloists aren’t as good as we think they are and therefore couldn’t pass an orchestra audition; auditions are capricious and arbitrary things, and there’s no order to how they come out; or, if someone came to an audition playing like a soloist, their style wouldn’t be accepted.

Each of those interpretations is true on occasion. Now and then, a committee will have a high crazy-to-reasonable ratio, and I would expect that committee to make crazy choices! And some soloists coast more than they should, and don’t consistently demonstrate the control you need to play in a top orchestra. The last two interpretations are closer to the mark, though. Let’s assume that there’s always some reason that an audition comes out the way it does, or else there’s no point in having this thought exercise! So, if a great soloist came in and played (as themselves) at an audition, would they pass the first round?

It’s important to remember what an audition is: a lightning-quick job interview, not unlike speed-dating, where a committee hopes to learn in five minutes how suited you would be for a job in their orchestra. Can you get off the ground in a solo piece? Can you play pianissimo? Can you play pianissimo and rock-steady? Also in tune? How about off-the-string strokes? All of these are vitally important on the job. You have to be able to do these things or you can’t do the job.

In theory, a top violinist should have total control over every aspect of playing the violin. No tempo, no dynamic, no stroke should be beyond her command. But every player has weaknesses. An audition hopes to answer, among other questions, “what are this player’s weaknesses, and would they prevent her from doing this job?”

Let’s take Perlman as an example, since he is someone who has long inspired me, both live and through recordings. He has physical weaknesses that are obvious to anyone who sees him get on stage. The manner in which he has refused to let these prevent him from having a glorious career is legendary. But the weaknesses don’t just go away, and they do affect his playing. For years he has had to work around his particular set of limitations, as we must all eventually do. Some of those would undoubtedly put him at a competitive disadvantage next to someone with no limitations in those areas. I’m thinking specifically of excerpts that require long bows in a slow tempo, held to the quietest dynamics: Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies. So do we revoke his soloist’s card? Do we stop being inspired by him? Of course not! We might not even notice these weaknesses because as a soloist, Perlman chooses a different bowing or fingering, a slightly different dynamic, a slightly different tempo. He solves the problem and delivers a compelling performance.

But what about Perlman’s style? Would that work in front of a committee? Remember that most string auditions begin with a concerto. And contrary to what you may have heard, audition committees like solos to sound like solos. In other words, committee members would be thrilled to hear their favorite soloist come in and play their version of a concerto. That would show that the candidate is a first-rate player and musician. Control over the various aspects of playing required by the excerpts would then complete the picture and let the committee know that the candidate was suited for this orchestra. Well, maybe that candidate would be too good… let’s vote them out. Just kidding! A little committee humor.

So what this really comes down to are strengths and weaknesses. Does our particular soloist demonstrate great playing in a variety of styles? Does she have any weaknesses of technique (intonation, rhythm, dynamic control) that would prevent her from playing in unison with 15 other people? If the committee likes the answers to these questions, then she should pass. If not, then… a lot of great playing gets cut because of specific technical weaknesses. Like it or not, a string section simply can’t accept someone who can’t (or won’t) play precisely with others. Some are willing, others are able, and a few manage to combine the two. Committees always hope they recognize those few and pass them along. And by the way, if a soloist did pass a first round and went on to the finals, then look out! Her immense performing experience would give her the upper hand, since in a final round, specific questions of technique become less important. Personality and strength of conviction take the prize.

So how about Josh Bell, since he started this whole train of thought? That would really be up to him, I imagine. Would it interest him to prepare a book of excerpts at very specific tempi and dynamics? To play them the same way every time? To face the possibility that his one chance might not be his best? He’s certainly shown that he can do everything required at an audition, and then some. Would he want to? One answer is: probably not, since he’s currently playing to packed houses as a soloist, choosing what, where and when he wants to play. One thing is for certain though: he would give a committee a Sibelius concerto to remember! I can see it now: Number 45, what a Sibelius! Sounded like a soloist, that one. Some tone. Would have been interesting to hear in the finals. But that Mahler, that wasn’t anywhere near pianissimo! And who told them they could rush in the Mendelssohn scherzo? Too bad! Now, put that Sibelius with this Mendelssohn, and you’ve really got something! I remember when I auditioned, this was back when you had to sight-read everything, you understand…

Nathan Cole's School of Violin at ArtistWorks is here.


May 16, 2014 at 04:02 PM · I must chime in. I think that many soloists would win the job with flying colors, and Joshua, whose primary teacher was the great orchestral concertmaster Joseph Gingold, is among them. Certainly, it's a different kind of playing. A soloist who has purposely avoided sight-reading and orchestral playing for a lifetime might have some troubles, particularly if they skipped over their musical education (ie. reading, orchestra) to perform. But look at someone like Daishin Kashimoto, who never really played in an orchestra before becoming concertmaster of Berlin. If you have the chops, performing experience and high-end musical education, and then you put all that know-how to work for a few months on excerpts, I'd bet that you can pretty much nail the audition.

May 16, 2014 at 05:45 PM · What soloists could do and want to do is an interesting question. I believe I know soloists who'd love to have Nathan's job, the very high pay and stability at least, and so why haven't they taken it away from him ;) His statement about playing together is good because there are tapes of Nathan playing in small chamber groups and the sense of those orchestra musicians of that caliber "playing together" is truly phenomenal, like nothing I've heard anywhere else. There are kinds of imprecision that don't detract from solos, and even don't detract especially from chamber playing, but eliminating them, having the skill to do that maybe, really contributes toward playing together; which I think is a main requirement of an orchestra violinist.

May 17, 2014 at 03:48 AM · Laurie, it looks like we agree! As I said, Josh has certainly shown that he can do anything on the instrument and then some. Our rehearsal with Josh started my train of thought, but this really wasn't about him. More about the whole question of auditions (specifically first rounds), and what they are and aren't.

I think the final round of an audition is like a recital, where the best player and musician there will (hopefully) run away with it. You could pretty much drop a soloist there and with a bit of preparation they would be the favorite. But first rounds? It's a bit like figure skating or gymnastics short programs at the Olympics, right? We know who the best skaters are going in, but we don't know if they'll "hit" their jumps until the competition happens. That's why we watch! Is that a great way to pick players for an orchestra? Maybe not, but it's the only way to hear lots and lots of candidates. You hope that those who "hit" in the first round are also the ones who could give you a great recital, thus showing how complete they are. As we all know, it doesn't always work out.

It's the old Churchill quote modified: "Screened auditions are the most unfair way to pick orchestra players, except all others that have been tried." :)

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