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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On rigged auditions and the threat of digital orchestras,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,
I know you don't live in America any more but I wondered if you knew that, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer's Peter Dobrin the latest seven musicians hired by the Philadelphia Orchestra are all locals: either trained at Curtis Institute or else were already substitute playing in the orchestra. Don't you think that this makes a mockery of the whole so-called audition process? Jeffrey Lang, a regular substitute horn, won the job without a specific audition, at all (though he had auditioned previously for the orchestra)!
Benjamin in PA

Dear Benjamin,
Tricky question!!! I mean, on the face of it, the answer has to be yes. It seems inconceivable that (were the auditions completely blind) seven out of seven jobs would go to locals, without a Juilliard, IU, Oberlin etc graduate swiping even one of them. (I know how good Curtis is, but even Curtis must acknowledge that it has no actual monopoly on top talent.)

But isn't this -- er -- just the way the system works? There probably aren't many substitute players in any top orchestra who don't aspire to find a way into membership -- and you've almost got to hand it to the Philadelphia for saying, 'We're not even going to pretend that we're fair on this one: we really like this horn player and we don't WANT to try to find his equal somewhere else. We just can't be fussed.' I mean, they COULD have just rigged the audition, couldn't they?

After all, what's the point of having top orchestra people teaching in the local conservatoire if they can't, once a decade at least, swing a job for one of their pupils? This is Life. And, for each job, each teacher could probably, in a good year, have provided between ten and twenty who (if not all perhaps quite so brilliant) would still have added to the lustre of the Philadelphia. In the same article you directed my attention to, Peter Dobrin states that Dara Morales, Utah Symphony principal violinist and sister-in-law of Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, has also been hired as the orchestra's new assistant principal second violinist. Which isn't to say that Ms Morales isn't a marvellous violinist (she must at least be extremely good). Was she absolutely the best in the audition? Maybe. Would she have gotten the job had her brother-in-law NOT been Philadelphia Orchestra's numero uno clarinet? We'll never know.

My personal view is that, since you asked, I'd try to forget about it (unless of course you happen to be a hot young Curtis grad, in which case I think this article offers some hope). As an actress friend of mine said, better not to know why someone got preferred to you in an audition, as that way lies madness. The performing arts have got to be the least fair and most subjective field to be in, but hey, we picked it with our eyes open.


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,
Sorry nobody wrote last week, so I thought you might be interested in writing something about this Wall Street Journal article.

Dear Mom,
What a great Mom you are ... yes, a fascinating little article about the controversy surrounding computerized music.

The jist of it (for those of you, like me, who don't normally read The Wall Street Journal, is that, though still cordially loathed, feared and despised by most real live musos, these computers have become good enough to deceive (at least some) top music boffins -- and some musicians are coming around to them. In this latter category fall (unsurprisingly) many composers, who can now hawk around a pretty decent CD of their compositions, rather than a scruffy and flea-bitten score. US musician's unions have so far held the wolf from the door on Broadway, but London has apparently partly succumbed, at least in some musicals. A mysterious 'Mr Smith', based in Connecticut, maintains that musicians like him might as well use digital orchestras as abuse it, since it's here to stay. There is even a Digital Orchestra League, for the promotion of machine-based music, whose members apparently rave about being hooked up to wires attached to machines very kinky) which apparently interpret your every gesture.

Personally I'm with Marin Alsop on this, who is quote by The WSJ as saying that she is willing to support the technology as a way for composers to get their music heard -- but doesn't think it should replace working musicians. ('It can be a great tool for moving up the ladder. But it's a slippery slope.') If I was a composer I'd probably be willing to pay $1000 to get a recording of my masterpiece that would convince all non-musicians and some musicians as the genuine article. But I have friends who make a living in pits (where the peril most looms) and I still get a kick out of going to a musical and hearing (and even spotting) fellow musicians playing away. To me, it adds a lot. I guess the question is: does it add enough -- and to enough punters -- for the hard-nosed economists at Cameron McIntosh productions etc to save the pit jobs in the long run???? I mean, there will always be a few musicians employed that way, even if they're wired up to computers, but there's a whole culture in danger here -- well, sort of a culture -- not to mention the profit margins of any number of West End pubs ...

Yours, frankly unwired up,

Copyright © 18 May 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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