6 Minutes To Shine

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's greatest ensembles (membership includes a six-figure salary and tenure for life). Sitting behind a screen so the judges cannot see them, musicians must quell their nerves and perform flawlessly.

Daniel Han (right) studied music at Boston University and was playing violin for the Fort Worth Symphony when he flew in for his BSO audition. ''This is a great job in a great city and an amazing orchestra,'' he said. ''I want this very badly.''
Daniel Han (right) studied music at Boston University and was playing violin for the Fort Worth Symphony when he flew in for his BSO audition. ''This is a great job in a great city and an amazing orchestra,'' he said. ''I want this very badly.'' (Joel Benjamin Photo (left); Derek Oliver/CP ) Joel Benjamin Photo (left); Derek Oliver/CP
By Geoff Edgers
September 4, 2005

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The violinist doesn't get to bed until 2:30 a.m. He has no choice. A late-afternoon con- cert in Texas meant a late flight into Logan. He arrived around midnight in the Back Bay, where he's crashing at the condo of a family friend, and, after getting himself settled, practiced for an hour. He plans to sleep late. No luck. All morning, the phone keeps ringing. He gives up. The audition approaches.

Daniel Han is 28, a skinny Korean-American who studied music at Boston University and eventually landed a job as a section player for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Now he's looking to return to the city where he started. That's why he paid for another airline ticket and put on his sharp gray suit for a November trip to Boston. He's been this close before. Once, Han made it all the way to the finals, one of only seven players to get within a single vote of a coveted spot in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Winning would change his life. The orchestra's artistic reputation is one of the country's best. Boston also has a distinct advantage over symphonies in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia; the BSO has a fat endowment and a stable business model, all of which would translate, for Han, into a starting salary of at least $100,000 a year. "This is a great job in a great city and an amazing orchestra," he says. "I want this very badly."

He has time for a banana before getting to the stage door on the side of Symphony Hall. It's noon now, and for two hours, BSO staffers have been shuffling contenders on and off the stage. The players barely speak. The symphony members who are charged with listening to them - the judges - also don't say a word. They scribble their votes on pieces of paper, their silent ballots collected and compiled by BSO employees.

Han follows a staff member down the stairs and through the winding labyrinth that's behind and beneath the Symphony Hall stage. He passes the lounge, where, in a day, finalists will wait together for the results. He passes the infamous corkboard where players pin up particularly harsh reviews and funny comic strips. For now, Han sets up in one of the grimy, soundproof 9-foot-by-11-foot practice rooms.

When Han's turn comes, Tim Tsukamoto, the BSO's personnel coordinator at the time, retrieves him. Han feels loose. For eight months, he's steadily practiced the long list of excerpts provided by the orchestra, including passages from Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. He tells himself that he's ready as he walks back down the hallway and up the stairs, stopping only a few feet away from the doorway leading to the stage. A player he knows from another orchestra is walking off. Han smiles and whispers his hello but nothing more. This isn't the place for idle chatter. He walks to his seat, rests his violin on his shoulder, and starts into a Mozart concerto. In only a few minutes, maybe even seconds, he will know whether this was worth the trip.

THERE IS NOTHING QUITE LIKE auditioning for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Take the level of competition and scrutiny at a pro football tryout. Add a shield of secrecy rivaling Yale's Skull and Bones society. Then, to complete the drama, throw in the screen. It is a brown-polyester 33-foot-long barrier that slices the Symphony Hall stage in half. On one side sit 10 of the BSO's players, waiting to vote on sheets of paper. On the other sit the hopefuls, who trudge on and off the stage, one by one, determined to show that they belong in the house that Henry Lee Higginson built, where Serge Koussevitzky ruled for a quarter century, where Bono and Yo-Yo Ma serenaded Senator Edward Kennedy, and where major works by Mahler, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky were heard on American soil for the first time.

Everything in this audition process, from the secret ballots to the eight-hour stretches of Shostakovich excerpts, is driven by a puritanical fervor for a single, guiding principle. All that matters is the music.

Typical job-interview expectations don't mean a thing here. There is no schmoozing or name-dropping, no wining and dining of hot prospects. The BSO, the richest orchestra in the world, won't even pay for a candidate's cheap motel room. No symphony does.

Even to get to this point - the violin auditions that were held last fall - Daniel Han and the 290 others who responded to a BSO advertisement had to make the first cut. Some advanced solely on a resume, others proved themselves to the judges with a CD demo, and still others, like Han, earned a spot after advancing in a previous BSO audition. By November, the BSO has used the tapes and resumes to whittle the list of contenders to 63.

Each applicant has received a letter in the mail. It offers no flowery congratulations or well wishes. It only lists what auditioners may be asked to play and issues a warning: "The Audition Committee reserves the right to dismiss immediately any candidate not meeting the highest standards at these auditions." The 10-member committee will take it from here. Though they've earned the right to dismiss a player at will, there's not a Simon Cowell among them. For one thing, the orchestra's trade agreement requires that the committee members don't speak to one another during the auditions. They're even "seated so as to discourage conversation," the agreement says. From behind the screen, they won't even tell a player when he or she has failed. When a judge has heard enough, he or she might signal to colleagues with a hand across the throat, and the player is cut off with a "Thank you." Later, Lynn Larsen, the symphony's personnel manager, usually delivers the bad news.

"It's an extreme process with extreme odds and extreme consequences," says Houston Symphony horn player Roger Kaza, a former member of the BSO whose self-produced spoof CD, Audition: Improbable, has developed a cult following in the symphony world. "It's ruthlessly egalitarian. It's possible for a teenager to rise to the top of their profession after what amounts to a 45-minute job interview. The only thing that comes close might be the sports world." But even in sports, nothing rivals this single moment that can make a career, and the stress can get to even the most seasoned professional. Knees shake, arm muscles tense, passages played smoothly in the practice room waver onstage. Ronald Wilkison, a BSO violinist for 10 years when he decided to try out for a viola opening in 1982, found a solution to calm his nerves - one that players commonly use today. Just before taking the stage, Wilkison gulped down a heart medication, Inderal. It's known as a beta blocker, and it counteracts adrenaline. He got the job.

"There are people who don't like the idea of taking a beta blocker," says Wilkison, who remains a member of the BSO. "The problem is that if you don't, you're putting yourself at a handicap."

MY FASCINATION WITH SYMPHONY AUDITIONS started a few years ago, as soon as I'd heard about the screen. Talking to the players only heightened my interest. Every successful musician seemed to have a darkly hilarious audition story to share. The violinist whose piano accompanist could barely play in rhythm. The player who showed up in leggings for comfort before realizing, in horror, that the screen was cracked and the judges could see just how dressed down she was. And then there's the legend of Daniel Katzen, the horn player who auditioned 48 times before finally landing a spot with the BSO in 1979.

I asked the symphony if I could sit in and watch one of the auditions. Larsen, a former French horn player in the Utah Symphony who has been the BSO's personnel manager since 1988, rejected the idea. Outsiders, he explained, have never been allowed in. Why would they now?

Still, I persisted. After a series of meetings and a promise to develop an approach that would in no way disrupt the process, Larsen seemed to see my side. But first, I would need the approval of the orchestra. He set up a meeting with members of the Players' Committee, a group of BSO members who could, if they agreed, take the idea back to the larger orchestra. This is where my audition dream died. Despite my best pitch - that reporters have watched presidents at work in the Oval Office, accompanied soldiers into war zones, shadowed cops making dangerous drug busts - they refused to budge. Some members were angered at the very suggestion and refused to talk with me later.

Ultimately, it was left to Fenwick Smith, a longtime flutist on the Players' Committee, to send an explanation. "In our meeting, you marshaled a variety of arguments in favor of your sitting in on the audition process," Smith wrote in an e-mail. "But I suspect that if you went down to your local courthouse and presented similar arguments to the judge and requested to sit in on the jury's deliberations and to report on it in The Boston Globe, the judge would be as intransigent as we have been."

I WAS ABLE TO PERSUADE THE BSO to send a letter to the auditioning musicians, asking that they contact me if they were interested in talking. A handful of players - all of them in their 20s - did reply. They agreed to let me follow them through their auditions, at least up to the door of Symphony Hall. I would have to re-create what happened on-stage the old-fashioned way, by interviewing those involved.

While I was not welcome, there was one guy the BSO wanted at the auditions. His name is James Levine, otherwise known as the maestro. But when Levine signed on as the BSO's 14th music director in 2002, he did so with a caveat. Two years would pass between Seiji Ozawa's exit and Levine's arrival. The BSO couldn't wait that long to fill open positions. So Levine - then leading both the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and the Munich Philharmonic - agreed to let the players choose somebody if he couldn't make an audition. (If he did attend, Levine would have "the ultimate judgment," with the players simply acting as advisers.) In any other profession, this might have seemed like a move to empower employees, to give them greater responsibility for the organization's success - or failure. But in the world of music, where the maestro is king, the delegation of authority sent a confusing signal.

Some players expected everything to change last fall, when Levine would finally take over the symphony. They figured he would be at most auditions. His predecessor, Ozawa, missed only one final round in 29 years - and that due to illness. They were wrong. When Levine missed the November violin auditions, he added to what can be charitably called a spotty attendance record. Of the 16 auditions since his appointment in the fall of 2002, Levine has attended two: principal timpani in January 2003 and principal flute in January 2004, according to the BSO. This has not pleased some players. They know that every other major orchestra - save for the Met's, still led by Levine - requires the music director to be involved for a player to win an audition.

"He's a wonderful music director, but he needs to be there," says Douglas Yeo, the BSO's longtime bass trombonist. "At the end of the day, the music director has the right to give a person tenure. If the music director is not involved in the audition from the get-go, I think that is something that deprives him from a part of the probationary process."

But when I meet Levine this spring for an interview in his dressing room at Symphony Hall, he says that he remains committed to the new system. Besides, he explains, the audition doesn't tell the whole story. Levine has a built-in safety valve: a probationary period for new hires that can last up to two years. After hearing how the player melds with the symphony, the Audition Committee can grant or deny tenure. But if the players are at a stalemate, Levine can make the call. It's hard to know, he says, whether the player is right for the job until he or she has had a chance to work as a member of the orchestra.

And when Levine explains his approach, it is not just a theory. He has been called one of the world's great orchestra builders during his time at the Met. "So much has to do with what they do instinctively, what they do perfectly without having to rehearse it, how they interact with colleagues," says Levine, "whether what they give keeps getting bigger and bigger in the orchestra or whether they shrink somehow."

"My message," he says, "is the audition isn't everything."

THE PLAYERS AT FIRST THOUGHT Levine might actually show for the violin auditions. They were taking place during the conductor's 12-week season in Boston. "He was in town, and the reason the finals were scheduled at this time were so he could be there," says Bonnie Bewick, a violinist who sat on the Audition Committee. "We were all hoping that he would show up, and he was very noncommittal, and then he didn't."

That was for the finals. The early rounds, even in Ozawa's time, typically have taken place without the conductor. The Audition Committee gets very basic instructions from Larsen. Keep discussion at a minimum. Avoid candidates by staying away from the lounge area, and if, by chance, you stumble upon one in the bathroom, act like the lawyer who bumps into a juror by the coffee machine and zip your lip.

The preliminary violin auditions take place on a Monday. Each player is asked to work through a pair of solos (Bach and Mozart) and at least two symphonic excerpts. At most, they play 12 minutes. But it can take as little as six minutes for the committee to decide a player is good enough to advance or not.

Reuben Blundell is one of the players taking his turn. Just 24, he has flown into town from Miami, where he was then a member of the New World Symphony, regarded as one of the leading training orchestras in the country. Blundell has movie-star looks, a Ralph Fiennes smile, and he stands almost 6 feet tall. Those blue eyes won't do much for him behind the screen. "It's a pity to be performing for people you can't see," Blundell says. "It can be a nice, reassuring thing to have some human contact."

A year before, Blundell had tried out for the first time. The New World loaned him a violin worth $100,000. It also should have given him money for a hotel room, but Blundell ended up staying in a youth hostel, so petrified that the instrument would be damaged that he slept with it beside him. This time, on the plane, Blundell strikes up a conversation with a doctor from Newton. He tells him he's trying out for the BSO. The doctor asks where he plans to stay. An airport hotel, Blundell says, because it's only $65 a night. Stay with us, the doctor says, and Blundell agrees.

Accepting the random kindness, however, actually hurts him. Unfamiliar with Newton, he starts walking toward the MBTA stop to catch a train for his 4:30 p.m. audition, but he doesn't realize that it will take a good 45 minutes to reach the station. By the time Blundell arrives at Symphony Hall, he has just about a half-hour before the audition. He wolfs down an apple he keeps in his violin case and sits on the floor, looking through the music he might be playing. When it is time, he heads behind the screen.

Ten minutes. That's all he gets when Blundell hears a firm "Thank you" from the concertmaster, Malcolm Lowe, whose voice he recognizes from summers in Tanglewood. He does not make the first cut. He's going back to Miami.

"It's my best BSO audition yet," he says. "I was pretty confident, and I remembered most of my new ideas.

"I do need to practice more."

IF BLUNDELL WANTS TO SEE HIS JUDGES, he'll have to do better. The screen typically does not come down until the final round. During the violin auditions, that's when six players find themselves in a playoff. And that's also when Dennis Roy, a bass player, realizes there's a split on the committee. He himself has heard three candidates he believes are all good enough for the job. He knows others on the committee also favor at least one other player. The question, though, is whether there will be a consensus. It's unclear. Larsen tallies the votes by collecting each committee member's sheet of paper. He will reveal the totals, not each person's vote.

"The objective is to find out what the committee thinks of the player overall," says Larsen. "The decision shouldn't be based on the power of your debating skills."

Struggling to make a decision, the Audition Committee discusses procedure - one of the few topics they are allowed to broach. They decide to ask the finalists to play again, which means another two hours of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. Would Levine have swayed the vote? Would he have simply picked a player, which is within his powers? The committee members will never know. "But it would certainly have changed the dynamic," says Bewick.

Levine's approach contrasts sharply with a process that once was handled almost entirely by the music director. In large part, the modern system of blind auditions and player committees emerged to balance the all-too-controlling hand of the conductor. In Boston, as in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York, the orchestra building of the 20th century was driven by the larger-than-life figures who ruled. Serge Koussevitzky. Fritz Reiner. George Szell. Arturo Toscanini.

"It was an imperial system," says 75-year-old Bill Moyer, who played trombone in the BSO from 1952 until 1966 and then served as personnel manager until 1987. "The conductor and Higginson hired the players in Europe and brought them over in a steamship. In some cases, he hired people without an audition."

Adolph Herseth, then a 26-year-old trumpet player studying at New England Conservatory, got a call from Artur Rodzinski, director of the Chi- cago Symphony, in the fall of 1947. Rodzinski asked Herseth if he could stop by his apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. "I just played a bunch of things I had heard the Boston Symphony play a lot," says Herseth, who is 84 now. "I played for about an hour, and when I got through, he said, `You will be my new principal trumpet. 'I said, 'OK, I'll go home and practice.'"

As the last century wore on, the old way became a problem. Orchestras needed to respond to the changes at music schools, which were seeing dramatic jumps in enrollment. While in 1946, Juilliard graduated just 46 musicians, 20 years later it would be up to 161. New England Conservatory sent just 16 string, wind, or brass players into the world in 1954. By the mid-1980s, that number had tripled. Add to this the growing desire by musicians to break up the old-boy networks or at least diversify the orchestras, which were almost entirely white and male, and it was clear that a radical change was in order.

The screen was born.

The impact of blind auditions has been felt. A 1999 study by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin that examined audition results from eight major orchestras, including Boston, determined that the screen gives women a much better chance to get a symphony job. The number of women hired for positions rose from 10 percent before 1970 to the current 35 percent. There are no official records marking the start of the screen, though the BSO's personnel office found a letter from 1963 in which the screen is mentioned for the first time. Boston was the first orchestra to adopt blind auditions, a practice used today by all major symphonies save Cleveland.

The idea of blind auditions didn't please everyone. When Vic Firth, the BSO's timpanist from 1952 until his retirement in 2002, first learned of the screen, he complained to the orchestra's management. "I said, `If you have to be behind the screen, you can do them without me,'" says Firth. " `I need to see physically how he does things. I need to see what kinds of mallets he picks to do certain kinds of repertoire.'"

Charles Schlueter, the BSO's principal trumpet player, initially refused to audition in the early 1980s. He found it absurd that he would be behind a screen.

"I asked, 'Why are you looking for an anonymous principal trumpet player?'" he says today.

HAN'S AUDITION TAKES PLACE a week after Blundell's, in November 2004. That's because, as a former finalist, he advances automatically to the semifinal round. His Mozart starts out strong. But then, about halfway through the passage of the Concerto No. 4, Han makes a minor mistake, flubbing a note or two. His self-confidence vanishes. He is thinking too much, not simply playing. He feels himself tightening, becoming cautious. He knows it. He's through. Backstage, Tsukamoto tells Han he played wonderfully. Kind words, but Han knows better. Discouraged, he shows up at the Newton home of his former teacher, Roman Totenberg. The 94-year-old violinist, whose house is filled with scores, records, and historical photographs, brings Han into his music room to talk through his frustration.

Han tosses his jacket on a chair and takes his violin in hand. "It started very well, but after I messed up, I played careful," says Han, his speech sometimes disrupted as he plays through a section.

"You're beating yourself up too much," says Totenberg.

As he approaches the door, Totenberg offers a hug.

"Don't get upset," he says. "Maybe you weren't as bad as you think."

Han's not so sure. Maybe Boston isn't going to work out. Maybe he's not cut out for auditions. But as he walks away, he's already starting to think about when he'll get another chance.

Geoff Edgers is an arts reporter for the Globe. E-mail him at