berlin philharmonic auditions

Typical screen from a US orchestral audition site.

I just stumbled on to an online virtual panel discussion at Polyphonic.org from several years ago centered on the subject of orchestral auditions.  One of the panelists, Fergus McWilliam is a member of the horn section of the Berlin Philharmonic – I thought his thoughts on the nature of how auditions are conducted in the BPO were quite interesting, especially the first three points that he presents on the philosophy of the audition itself.

Since its founding in 1882 the Berlin Philharmonic has enjoyed three critical and inextricably related advantages, when it comes to auditioning new musicians. None of these is, or should be, unique in the orchestral world, however the combination is uniquely powerful and effective for us.

1. The vacancy belongs to the orchestra. In no way is it the property of the public domain. The orchestra is not obligated to fill a position once it has been advertised and we reserve the right not to select anyone at an audition. In my time we have more than once taken over eight years to find the right person.

2. We, the members, know pretty well what we are looking/listening for:
we know our collective sound, our musical language, our collective artistic personality. The audition is not therefore primarily a contest between competitors for a gold medal. Much more importantly, we search for the “right” musician, not necessarily only the “best” player.

3. The orchestra decides who is chosen – all musician-members vote on the basis of one musician – one vote. Neither a select audition committee, nor principal players, nor the concerned section and certainly not the conductor controls the audition decision. Tenure is also granted by the orchestra membership alone, based on a secret vote.

Audition Repertoire:

We emphasise solo repertoire, not orchestral excerpts at the audition. If a Mozart concerto exists for the instrument being auditioned then that is mandatory. Otherwise another classical period concerto is expected. Invariably we ask at least for the 1st movement with a cadenza; in a second round a contrasting work of the candidate’s choosing. Orchestra excerpts are never requested at violin, viola and cello auditions. For double bass, the winds and brass yes.

We look for strong personalities, powerful musical statements, individual interpretations, in addition to beauty of tone, stylistic knowledge, technical skill, etc. The concerto is the centre of the audition, not just a warm-up piece.

Audition procedure:

The section with the vacancy reviews all applications and democratically selects between 10 and 16 candidates who will be invited to an audition in front of the orchestra. If a high number of qualified candidates makes it necessary, a pre-audition may be held the day before. This is open to the whole orchestra but is not mandatory; usually only the concerned section is out in force.

No screens are used. We want to learn as much as we possibly can about the candidate in the short time they are on stage. One can “see” a lot by observing body language and stage presence.

We have frequently used a kind of “shoot-out” procedure at winds and brass auditions. Typically two to four “finalists” are on stage together and we have them perform excerpts in each other’s presence. Although this is a brutally effective way of testing the candidates’ nerves, more importantly it is also an extremely effective way for us to compare and contrast, with profound immediacy, the sounds and approaches of similarly qualified candidates.

The music director is free to attend if he wishes, and is granted a single vote like every one else.

Probation:

Can last one to two years, after which the concerned section makes a recommendation to the whole orchestra. The final decision is however made in a secret ballot of the orchestra membership. This is the most testing time for a new player and in the recent past fully one third of the probationary musicians were not accepted into the orchestra. This the time when, if necessary, we must fix any hiring mistakes WE may have made!

3 thoughts on “berlin philharmonic auditions

  1. Dan Rasay

    As a professional who auditions and listens to them… are you in favor or against all or part of the BPOs methodology? Just curious. :)

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  2. Charles Noble Post author

    I think it’s a great way to do things, but it most likely would only work well for them. I admire the ethic behind the audition process, and especially the lack of excerpts for many of the auditions. I like the fact that they seem to be looking for the best musician, not necessarily the person who can play the most notes without making a mistake. Most American auditions seem to be hell bent on seeing who can survive to the finals and win, rather than seeking out the best player for the job. Does that make sense?

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  3. Dan Rasay

    That makes sense… I’m so used to hearing about the typical concerto+excerpts+screen+auditioncommittee formula. That begs the question… why not audition more like the BPO? Particularly if an organization wants to strengthen their shared artistic vision… just a late night thought.

    Reply

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