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.
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