Off-Season Pick Ups

The New York Mets season is not over…yet.

I did, however, just conclude my eighteenth season at the Metropolitan Opera.

Just as general managers of baseball franchises purchase the contracts of players and make trades in the off season to fill available positions, the end of our season often sees openings created by retirement.

As I write this, many of my colleagues are involved in the culmination of a four-day endeavor to select a new First Horn:  a very key position in any orchestra.

Barring any unforseen circumstances, by today’s end, a new Principal Horn of the MET Orchestra will be named.

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Not too many years back, vacancies in orchestras were filled through arrangements between a conductor and a player that he knew from somewhere else or whom that instrument’s section leader knew–usually a student.  It was arranged that the musician would play for the conductor, sometimes as briefly and informally as in the conductor’s dressing room prior to a rehearsal or concert.  He was then handed the job.

I use the pronoun “he” because female conductors as well as female orchestral players were unheard of in the early twentieth century.

Because of the strength of the musicians’ union and because of the general increase in the numbers of capable players worthy of consideration, most positions are now filled through an audition process.

Siegfried.jpgAudition notices are published in the monthly newsletter of the American Federation of Musicians.  Interested candidates may submit a resumé and request to be sent the excerpts–the specific passages from longer works which the committee will hear during the audition.

While such auditions are supposed to be conducted fairly, prejudices often play a part of the decision-making process.  It is understandably difficult to remain objective when serving on an audition committee when one is hearing a player who (1) has been subbing in the position and has been deemed worthy–and deserving–through that informal trial basis, (2) has been his or her student, (3) or is a personal friend or acquaintance.  Further discrimination can occur, consciously or subconsciously, on assumptions made by the age of the candidate, the candidate’s known experience (or lack thereof), the make of instrument on which the candidate plays, or even the gender of the candidate.

The MET does something in its auditions that, to my knowledge, no other orchestra has utilized:  every single round of the audition is conducted with the candidates placed behind a screen.  The committee is then left to evaluate the candidate strictly on the merits of the music the candidate is making.  When, for example, “Number Two” is declared the winner and comes around to meet the committee, his/her identity is not known to the members of the committee.

I think it is hardly a coincidence that our orchestra boasts a large number of women in its ranks as well as extremely accomplished very young players–some of whom won their jobs before they were even out of music school.

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Because I’ve always been intrigued that there are so many parallels between playing for a baseball team and playing in an orchestra, I am also very interested when I find or think of distinct differences between being a player on “my” team and a player on a MLB team…beside the issue of payscale, I mean.

I have often wondered what the music world would be like if music directors or general managers of music ensembles orchestrated trades to fill vacancies.  While I have had colleagues who left the MET Orchestra to play in the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony, the MET did not receive a player in return for these musicians.

The “Player to be Named Later” was named following an open audition on OUR end.

Spring Training can be a somewhat informal “audition” of sorts, I suppose. Some players will make the team and others will not, of course.  Auditioning for a specific position, while not as common, does happen.  After all, it wasn’t until after Opening Day that Jerry Manuel awarded the Center Field position to Angel Pagan over Gary Matthews, Jr.

But to think of (1) ball players auditioning in a way that did not reveal their identity and/or (2) having them perform certain plays, i.e., throw certain pitches, catch balls going to the left/right, basket catch, shoestring catch, etc.–as a “tryout”, in the manner of prepared excerpts from the orchestral literature, is downright hilarious.

 Imagine a batting cage sheathed in dark cloth so as not to disclose the identity of the batter.

phillies copy.jpgObviously, in order too properly evaulate a prospective player, one has to watch him react, see how tall he is, observe his batting stance, and countless other visual clues to his abilities.

While I believe the MET’s anonymous audition process has worked well as a hiring procedure, I can still fantasize about the scenario of musicians being traded and finding themselves making music in another city with different colleagues with little or no notice (if he or she chose to waive any No-Trade Clause.)

“Hello, Susan?  It’s the Philadelphia Orchestra calling.”

 

UPDATE:  Colleagues from the brass section responded last night to my inquiries regarding the results of the audition and informed me that the committee had selected Erik Ralske, acting Associate Principal Horn (for the past 5 years) and, prior to that, Third Horn for the New York Yankees, er, New York Philharmonic.

I also neglected to mention in the first publication of this post that the Principal Horn vacancy was created by the retirement of distinguished Principal Horn, Julie Landsman.  Julie is a dynamic, inspiring player that has led that section with distinction since 1985.  She is also on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music and has former students in many major orchestras, including the MET Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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