At SLSO, it's all about choosing the right musicians

2012-11-10T09:00:00Z 2012-11-10T18:16:15Z At SLSO, it's all about choosing the right musiciansBy Sarah Bryan Miller

Listening to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, you wouldn’t know that anyone was missing from the ensemble: It’s one of the world’s great orchestras, and it sounds like it.

Looking at the roster, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the sea of asterisks that presents itself: single asterisks for vacant chairs (six principal and associate principal positions), double asterisks for replacements (11 of them) and triple asterisks for those on leave of absence (four musicians are out for the year, and perhaps permanently).

Some of those chairs have been open for what seems like a long time: principal trumpet, principal keyboards, piccolo. One of them has been filled: New principal viola Beth Guterman Chu will join the SLSO in January. She delayed her start here because she had a baby in August.

“There’s no one thing that’s causing this,” says Beth Paine, orchestra personnel manager. “There are a myriad of reasons (for the vacancies).” Ten have retired recently, some of them relatively sudden. Principal timpani Richard Holmes died in June 2011. A replacement piccolo was hired, but that musician didn’t stay, and the auditioning process had to begin all over again.

“We have four people on leave of absence, which is kind of a standard industry thing,” Paine says. “We have a number of positions for which we have had auditions, but not yet filled the position. It’s a lengthy process.”

How lengthy? At a minimum it’s six to eight months, she says. Four weeks have to be allowed to get an ad in the monthly union newspaper, the International Musician. Musicians performing at the SLSO’s level need four months for the intensive work of preparing for the auditions. A committee of 11 musicians must be formed to hear the auditions. Schedules have to be cleared on all sides. Times must be found when busy Powell Symphony Hall is available, and when the music director is in town.

Over the course of a season, Paine usually oversees four to five tenure-track auditions, many planned more than a year ahead. For the principal timpani audition, discussions started soon after Holmes’ death.

“That was a particularly difficult one to schedule because of the equipment we needed to provide,” Paine says. “There were a lot of logistics to figure out, and most of the possible dates (last season) were already filled. We started looking for two consecutive days when our music director could be here.” The first round began on Oct. 30; the finals are scheduled for early February.

Sometimes, for short-term, non-tenure track positions, it’s possible to dispense with auditions and use musicians well-known to the artistic department. Sometimes, the orchestra gets lucky. Contrabassoon Brad Buckley, for instance, gave plenty of notice of his retirement plans. “We were able to schedule the audition before (he) left, and we were able to have a seamless transition there.” St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra alumnus Drew Thompson won the position. But, Paine cautions, such speed is “generally more the exception than the rule.”


The orchestra receives hundreds of applications for many positions. “I would say that this is a great job,” says Fred Bronstein, SLSO president and CEO. “It’s a great orchestra. It’s an orchestra with a really nice internal spirit; positive things are happening, it’s stable. We’ve had a good response (to openings). But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to fill them the first time around. And a case in point is the principal trumpet position.”

Susan Slaughter was the SLSO’s principal trumpet for four decades before retiring in 2010; after several sets of auditions, her chair has yet to be filled. “It is really a key position in the orchestra,” Bronstein says. “Susan was an icon. Those are big shoes to fill. And her sound was, in many ways, the sound of the St. Louis Symphony. To fill those shoes, to find someone who will bring their own personality to it — the institution is taking its time with it.”

Music director David Robertson agrees. “There’s a problem when someone who is a major part of the orchestra’s consciousness retires. That happened when the principal clarinet position opened up: There were people who had been listening to (George) Silfies playing solos for a generation. We were extremely lucky to have someone of the quality of Scott Andrews audition the first time.”

One of the problems with the system of auditions is that it’s “artificial,” Robertson says. Until the final round, musicians perform behind a screen, to avoid any possible prejudices regarding gender, race or body type. They play short pieces, with no context. And they’re playing solo. “The big thing about playing in an orchestra is that the main thing you do is what they put on a kindergartner’s report card: ‘Plays well with others.’ But you’re playing by yourself.”



Robertson says that they regularly hear good players who just aren’t quite the right fit for the orchestra. In St. Louis, he says, “the jury musicians will all gravitate to the one who is more interesting, rather than the one with pure technique. If the person behind the screen is saying something, the jury members will gravitate to that.”

There have been times when he’s taken a chance on someone he wasn’t sure about. “A couple of times I’ve had to say, ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t the right fit for you or for us.’” Once, at another orchestra, Robertson went “against my own better judgment” on a musician. “I came to realize that I’d saddled them with the wrong player for 30 years. You can hurt an institution with the wrong fit.”

The other thing to remember, he says, is that “you need to find a person with the ability to grow into a Rick Holmes or a Susan Slaughter. When they started, they were remarkable, but they had not yet grown into the pillars they became. Our problem, and it’s a difficult one, is to identify those people that no one may have ever heard before, who have the technique and ability to let us hear the musician within. Someday, they will be the pillars.”

Obviously, Robertson says, “you can’t wait indefinitely. (The audition process) is difficult to manage, and sometimes it’s unwieldy, and it’s hard to get the dates organized with a busy concert schedule.

“But you sometimes find the right person right out of the blue, with the combination of intelligence, love, virtuosity and heart that makes up the St. Louis Symphony. Sometimes someone walks out on stage, and you say, ‘That’s the one.’”

Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch’s classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.

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