hard truths

In the world of professional cycling, the time trial is known as the ‘race of truth’. You are essentially alone on the road, trying to ride your hardest and fastest sustainable pace for the entire distance, trying on top of that to set the fastest absolute time of the field to win the stage. It is often described as one of the most exquisitely painful feats a cyclist can purposely endure.

In the world of the professional musician, the audition is our race of truth. Just one person, obscured from view by a screen, on stage in a concert hall, playing to the best of one’s ability in the hopes of advancing, and eventually winning the gig. Like the time trial, it can often be an exquisitely painful process, whether one wins, or not.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been preparing (in and of itself an agonizing process) to take the audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s latest viola opening. They previously held auditions, but no winner was chosen. I’m fairly long in the tooth for taking auditions (I’m 45), but I thought that I’d give it the old ‘college try’. I spent hours in the practice studio, with metronome, tuner, and digital recorder, re-learning and trying to constantly refine the list of audition repertoire that was required for the audition. This included the first movements of two standard concertos, and some 18 orchestral pieces ranging from Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta. If there is any process which serves more to introduce self-doubt, and energize any and all self-imposed demons, than preparing for an orchestral audition, then I don’t even want to know what that might be. Because preparing for auditions is hell.

I spent the time in the practice studio, then sought out colleagues to play for, both recording the process and getting detailed feedback on what needed improvement from them. Then back into the studio for more self-flagellation. All while still preparing chamber music, outside gig music, and of course, music to be performed at my primary workplace, the Oregon Symphony. Ugh.

So, the audition in Chicago consists of just two rounds: preliminaries and finals. There were three days of preliminaries (two held this past Monday and Tuesday, and one more to be held this Saturday), and then the finals will be held in late January. I played in the morning group on Tuesday.

I’ll make a long story short, and just give the brutal details. I warmed up for about an hour in the group warm-up room (certainly one of Dante’s circles of hell) in the bowels of Symphony Center. Then, about 30 minutes before I was to go onstage, I was led up to a practice room of my own on the same level as the stage. I would not know what I would be asked to play (aside from which concerto) until I stepped on stage. So, I methodically went over all of the passages I thought I’d be most likely to play in the round, both slowly and trying them up to tempo, trying to keep my fingers warmed up and supple. After I’d given up trying to play anymore, a runner came to the door and summoned me to the stage. I then stood in the wings while the candidate before me played a really stunning audition, playing a total of six excerpts plus her concerto movement. Then, I walked onstage, into the beautiful confines of Orchestra Hall. I tuned, then played my concerto. It didn’t really feel good. Nothing was bad, but I wasn’t, as I wanted to, playing ‘like I play’. It was too careful, too controlled, perhaps a bit timid. Then I was instructed to play one of the toughest excerpts there is for the viola: No. 77 in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.


It traverses the entire range of the instrument in 26 bars, and literally every note of it is like navigating a minefield. Again, it didn’t feel good. There was no swagger to it, no self-assurance. It wasn’t particularly well in-tune. Then, ‘Thank you.’ I was done. Four minutes of playing time, and months of effort and hundreds of dollars of travel expenses were realized. Stunned, I slowly walked off stage, and actually snorted when the proctor congratulated me on a “good job”.

Now, I know that a lot of candidates would have such an experience and say something along the lines of “What the hell is wrong with the f-ing CSO??? Can’t they just let you play?” Sure, they could, but they’re looking for something very specific, and they have lots and lots of candidates to hear, and they don’t need to mess around when they know that someone isn’t at the standard they’re looking for. Even if I’d played perfectly in aspects of intonation and rhythm, musically, I clearly wasn’t playing with the confidence that they obviously were looking for, and I accept that. So, I get back to life as a non-auditioner, and play with my incredible string quartet, new music ensemble, and the Oregon Symphony – all in an amazing and wonderful city. I’m already a lucky man.

hit ’em where they ain’t

I was talking with a symphony colleague on Sunday afternoon about the death Saturday of Bud Herseth (who was the principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony from 1948-2001, then principal trumpet emeritus from 2001-2004), and he made an interesting observation about Herseth’s playing – namely that he wasn’t nearly as flub-proof as legend suggested, but that if it happened, it was always in a place where the concertoer would hardly even notice it. In the big moments, he would never, ever, miss (the high C in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra being a prime example, or the opening of Maher’s Fifth Symphony). It’s the law of conservation of energy for the orchestral musician, especially one in a exposed solo role – you nail the stuff that everyone will hear, and the other stuff can be sweated just a bit less. It made me think instantly of the old baseball saw about hitting success – just hit ’em (the ball) where they (the fielders) ain’t. Except in this case it’s more like making the clutch play when all eyes are on you, and then scratch your ass when someone else is in the spotlight. It’s a key factor in having a long and successful career in an orchestra for just about anyone. Anyone else who’s in a professional orchestra want to weigh in on this?

a legend steps down


The Chicago Symphony has announced that its principal horn for the past 47 seasons, Dale Clevenger, will retire effective June 30, 2013. From the orchestra’s press release:

Concluding a distinguished career of nearly five decades as principal horn with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Dale Clevenger will retire from the CSO, effective June 30, 2013.

A legend in the world of French horn for his sound, technique, finesse and fearless music making, Clevenger joined the CSO in 1966 under then-Music Director Jean Martinon. Throughout his 47-year tenure, he performed under subsequent Music Directors Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, as well as Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez, former Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink, former Principal Guest Conductors Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado, and countless guest conductors.

CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti praised Clevenger, saying “Dale Clevenger will remain in the world of music not only as a great horn player, but also as a true musician and dedicated teacher. His unique contributions to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as Principal Horn since 1966 leave a legacy that will forever be remembered and admired. I thank him for the music he has shared with me personally and I wish him great joy, peace and happiness as he begins a new chapter in his musical life, one I am sure will continue to enrich the musical world in innumerable ways.”

Clevenger has appeared with the CSO as soloist 35 times on subscription concerts in Chicago, as well as 23 times at the Ravinia Festival during the summer months. Among his most notable appearances was the world premiere in 2004 of a horn concerto composed for him by John Williams.

Before joining the CSO in 1966, Clevenger was a member of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air, directed by Alfred Wallenstein; he also served as principal horn of the Kansas City Philharmonic and was an extra with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.