We held an audition for second bassoon last Sunday. From around 200 applicants, the field was screened by resume -- in some cases, by recording-- to 46 invited candidates. From that number, 37 attended our audition.
The audition was held on the stage of Severance Hall. The candidates played from a position in the middle of the stage, approximately where the second bassoonist would sit in the orchestra. The audition committee sat in the hall on the orchestra ground floor. A series of room dividers was put in front of us as a screen to provide anonymity in the first round.
All applicants in the first round played the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart Concerto, the first four lines of page 2 from the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, the solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony #4 and, in some cases, the second bassoon part from the opening of the second movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
We chose six candidates from the first round to hear again in another round. Excerpts asked for that round were:
Mendelssohn Symphony #3, second movement tutti passage just before letter F
Tannhauser Overture opening
Ravel Piano Concerto in G, 3rd movement, 2nd bassoon part only
Bach B minor Mass, Quoniam
Verdi Overture to "I Vespri Siciliani" opening three passages
After hearing all six play and following brief discussion, the committee and Franz Welser-Most decided that we had heard no one who was sufficiently qualified that day for our second bassoon position.
Results like these are frustrating for all involved -- auditionees, committee members, music director and personnel managers. I'd like to devote the rest of this blog to sharing my thoughts as to why the day was not successful.
In spite of the result, I think our audition system works pretty well. Not only do we try to give applicants the opportunity to prove their worthiness, we try very hard to be discriminating during the audition process. It is much more difficult and painful to deny tenure to someone who, after being hired, demonstrates deficiencies during a season or two of performing. Better to do the weeding carefully from the beginning, if possible -- at the audition. If that means not hiring anyone, so be it.
First of all, we don't usually invite that many people to play live, so we're not trying to filter through a couple of hundred players over several days. We usually try to conduct our business in a single day's time.
Second, those that are not invited based on their resume are given the opportunity to submit a recording of their playing for evaluation and possible invitation. This is not just a bone thrown to those younger, less experienced players we may not want to hear. Indeed, four of our most recent hires started their audition process at this stage and were only invited after the committee had heard them.
Regarding the second bassoon audition, we invited only one person from the group of recordings to the live audition.
Third, because we limit the number of live auditions, it is usually possible for Franz Welser-Most to hear all candidates in every round of an audition. This is very unusual -- maybe unique among major orchestras. Having him in from the beginning lends more focus and discipline to the listening we do.
So what happened Sunday?
I would summarize the lack of success in two ways:
1. A great majority of the candidates did not seem to have good control, pitch or evenness of tone in the low register. This is extremely important for any second bassoonist and was signally lacking in most of the playing we heard.
None of the second round candidates displayed mastery of the soft dynamic, secure articulation and solid intonation in the Tannhauser excerpt, in particular. This one and the Brahms Violin Concerto from the first round were the "money" excerpts for me.
In addition, there were a number of players who exhibited a rough, percussive style in the Mozart Concerto. Accenting every downbeat, emphasizing bar lines, and using explosive articulation in a piece that has a nobility and grace made the bassoonists on the committee embarrassed at times for the way our instrument was being treated.
2. Most of the candidates did not "play the hall". While it's generally not possible to play in the audition space prior the event, players can usually try a few notes to check acoustics. It's smart to make small adjustments in approach based upon what you hear coming back to you after checking some notes. I usually play a few detached notes to hear the reverb time and then go. Choose your best notes! This is not a time to check things about which you are not sure!
Be aware that when playing technical passages, if the committee is sitting out in the hall or is placed far away from you, it may be necessary to take a click or two off of your tempo so what you play will be clearly heard. Severance Hall has world-class acoustics. The stage is very sensitive and projects the sound into the seats with ease. There is no need to strain or over play to put your sound out there.
So many Figaros and Ravel piano concertos we heard just sounded like a blur.
Nerves, a lack of awareness of the acoustics and an inability to gauge how the performance is heard in the seats made many candidates rush through technical passages.
There is another factor to consider: a majority of most audition committees is made up of non-bassoonists. They will be listening with different ears. Many will be more concerned with a general impression, instead of focusing on the specifics of bassoon playing. A surprising number will be rather unfamiliar with some of the repertoire you're playing -- especially second bassoon parts.
Those auditioning need to keep this under consideration.
I hope what I've had to say here will shed some light on how things played out last Sunday and help any of those we might hear for this position in the future.
At this point, it's unclear how we're going to proceed to fill the position. Another audition needs to be scheduled. I can't speculate on how we will go forward at this time.