FILLING HIS CHAIR
By John von Rhein
Perhaps nothing a symphony orchestra does is more closely guarded, thus more mysterious to the concertgoing public, than the process by which musicians audition to fill vacancies.
"It is very important not only to find the best possible players in the world, but also to find players who will fit in the orchestra's style of playing," says Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim.
At the CSO, as at the nation's other leading orchestras, elaborate contractual safeguards have been built into the system to ensure that candidates are judged fairly, and strictly on musical merit, by a committee of orchestra members and - in the final stage of the audition process - by the music director. It's important to protect the anonymity (not to mention the sensitive egos) of the hundreds of applicants.
It's also crucial at a time when symphony managements must balance their need to choose the best-qualified musicians against pressures from inside and outside the industry to increase the number of minority players on the roster. (Although women and Asian musicians have scored significant increases over the last couple of decades, African-American players, for a great many reasons, still lag behind.)
Very often it takes a major appointment to a prominent orchestra chair to rip the veil of secrecy from the auditions procedure.
And that is what has happened with the CSO's recent hiring of Craig Morris to succeed Adolph "Bud" Herseth, who will retire this summer after an unprecedented 53 years as the orchestra's peerless principal trumpet.
Morris, the Texas-born associate principal trumpet of the San Francisco Symphony, is 32 - only five years older than Herseth was when he was hired by then-music director Artur Rodzinski to join the Chicago Symphony in 1948. Morris already feels like a grizzled veteran of the tryout process, having risen from the CSO's fourth utility trumpet (a position he held briefly in 1998) to vying for the chief trumpet post in three sets of auditions over three years.
His is a fascinating, and not atypical, first-chair saga.
In the winter of 1998, Morris found himself out of an orchestra job after the Sacramento Symphony, where he had held the principal trumpet post, went bankrupt. Through musicians' union publications he learned the CSO had posted an opening for fourth utility trumpet. (The trumpet section consists of principal, assistant principal, second and fourth player. ) He seized the opportunity. Playing in the famous Chicago brass section had been his dream since his student days, he says. "When I decided I wanted to be an orchestral musician, I would listen to Chicago recordings and say, 'Yeah, that's the way I want to do it - that's the place I'd love to end up.' "
Although entering the CSO at the bottom rung of the trumpet section was far from his career goal, he flew to Chicago, auditioned for the job and won the fourth trumpet job over more than 300 other applicants.
Hedging his bets in the few weeks before his starting date at the CSO, Morris also auditioned for the associate principal position in San Francisco. The morning he left for Chicago, he got a call from San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas offering him the job.
That presented an interesting quandary.
"Bud said the orchestra would love to have me here, but if I had a desire to play principal trumpet and eventually move into his spot, I'd be better off going to San Francisco, where I would gain more principal experience," Morris says.
He played for six weeks with the CSO before heading out to the West Coast.
And it's there he would remain until the CSO, clearly impressed with his work, invited him to audition for Herseth's position in February 1999, soon after Herseth alerted management to his pending retirement. Morris fell one vote shy of winning. "I was happy that I came so close," Morris recalls. "Frankly, I didn't think I played well enough that day to merit the job." Apparently the committee thought no other candidate played well enough, either, because it gave no one the minimum six votes needed for further consideration.
Back in contention
Scheduling conflicts prevented Morris from entering the second round of trumpet auditions the following October, at which once again all candidates -- there were 38 in the previous preliminary round -- failed to satisfy the committee's prerequisites. When Morris returned to Chicago for open auditions this winter, he found himself vying with 56 musicians, including some of his CSO colleagues from three years before. Still, he says, "I felt pretty relaxed, considering everything that was at stake and how much work I had put into the audition preparation." But the toughest part was yet to come.
It's common practice for a major orchestra to take its time when filling a principal chair, especially a position as crucial and exposed as principal trumpet of the CSO. Before the CSO replaced longtime principal oboe Ray Still with Alex Klein in 1995, 131 players vied in three rounds of auditions that took two years. It required that many auditions to produce a player -- Morris -- who measured up to the standards of the nine orchestra members who make up the auditions committee and Barenboim.
Although union regulations have more or less standardized the auditions procedure for U.S. symphony orchestras, the CSO is more democratic about it than some other Big Five ensembles. The Boston Symphony, for example, relies much more heavily on resumes and submitted tape recordings to determine which players are to enter preliminary auditions. In Chicago, auditions are open to anyone who wants to apply. Resumes are requested, along with a $100 deposit to reserve an audition time. The $100 is waived if the applicant submits a tape.
Carol Lee Iott, the CSO's manager of orchestra personnel, insists the CSO procedure, which has been in place for several decades, produces better results, even though it can be more laborious for the auditions committee. "We have always prided ourselves on the fact that we know there's talent out there that may not be reflected on paper or on a tape," she says. "We have found our best players this way."
Candidates for vacant chairs at the CSO must pass preliminary auditions before advancing to the finals. Auditions are conducted behind a screen, with carpeting laid down to muffle the telltale click of high heels. A committee of nine orchestra members hears the candidates play selections from the orchestral repertory. Each preliminary audition usually lasts about seven or eight minutes, final auditions roughly twice that time. Votes are taken by secret ballot; committee members are not allowed to discuss the applicants or even sit closely together during auditions.
One of the music director's many roles, according to Barenboim, is "to share his thoughts with . . . the audition committee so that there is a real sharing of responsibilities between (him) and the musicians of the Orchestra."
To be eligible for further consideration by the music director, an applicant must receive six or more approval votes by the committee. Barenboim has the final word: If the applicant is approved by six committee members but not by him, that's as far as the player advances at that time. But any finalist (for any position) who isn't hired may be invited back to another final audition by Barenboim with the committee's consent, as long as the audition takes place that season or the following season. If the vacancy is a principal chair, the applicant may be invited to audition a second time. Such players may skip the preliminary auditions and go straight to what are known as the "pre-final" auditions.
The last round
Pre-finals for principal trumpet were held in January, and Morris was among the candidates who advanced to February's final auditions. The field was narrowed to two: Morris and a principal trumpet from a leading German orchestra whom Barenboim had invited to the pre-finals. Morris said he barely made it into the finals. This was exactly the motivation he needed. Determined not to sacrifice his last and best shot at the brass ring, Morris "went into that last round with fire" licking from his trumpet, he recalls.
Barenboim asked each man to play excerpts ranging from the Beethoven Fifth Symphony to "Siegfried's Funeral March," from Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung." That's where Morris' practiced grace under pressure paid off. He played, he said later, like he had never played in his life. The committee and Barenboim were bowled over. They had found their new principal trumpet.
The date of Morris' victory was Feb. 17 -- "a momentous day I will remember for a very, very long time," he says. Six weeks later, he remains blissfully "in shock." "A friend of mine said it's sort of like being chosen to play center field for the Yankees. You grow up a Yankees fan, you would kill to play with the Yankees. If you work real hard maybe you will become a good enough ball player to play center field with some other team. The Giants, sure. The Dodgers, great. But not the Yankees!" he says, laughing.
Before officially joining -- make that rejoining -- the CSO this summer, Morris will try on his new principal's chair for size during Barenboim's two subscription weeks later this month; Herseth will remain through the end of the Ravinia season to help ease the transition. While here, the divorced dad who's a parent to 5-year-old Jacob also plans to scout out apartments in Chicago.
By contract, Morris now enters a two-year probation period, during which the music director and orchestra committee will decide how well he fits in, as both ensemble member and, more crucially, section leader, before being given tenure. "Some players need a certain amount of time for adaptation, and this is one of the reasons there is a probation period," says Barenboim.
Of course, only time will tell how successfully Morris, for all his talent, determination and willingness to grow, can fill Herseth's estimable shoes. He will be expected to set the tone -- literally -- of the mighty CSO brass choir, just as his predecessor did for more than half a century. All ears will be on him.
Which points up the downside of the auditions process. It can only join an orchestra and a gifted, promising new player in musical wedlock; it cannot predict with certainty how long or happy the union will be.
"It can be a frustrating process, at times, and, as with any system, it relies on the people running it," says Tom Hall, a member of the CSO violin section who has served on many auditions committees since joining the orchestra in 1970. "But if you look at the results, it works."