When the New York Philharmonic plays their free Memorial Day concert at St. John the Divine on Monday, there will be a handful of empty seats in the orchestra.
Not literally empty. But some of those chairs will be filled with substitute players, because the orchestra, for various reasons, hasn’t filled certain vacancies for several years. These include section bass and cello openings, both of which have gone through multiple no-hire auditions.
The Philharmonic certainly isn’t unique in this respect. Orchestras, both large and small, have historically kept seats open, sometimes temporarily for economic reasons. In other cases it is the result of auditions where – for artistic, logistical or other reasons – the relevant parties can’t agree on a candidate.
The seats tend to get filled eventually; the longest anyone interviewed for this story remembers a seat being open is about a decade. In most cases orchestras say they really do want to hire. “When I sit at an audition table and a winner isn’t chosen, I’m really disappointed,” said Boston Symphony bass trombonist Douglas Yeo, who regularly sits on audition committees. But it’s a big decision. “I sit between the same two people every day of my life, and I see them more than anyone else on earth except my wife,” he said.
The Philharmonic declined to comment, saying it is orchestra policy not to discuss the audition process.
Since 2008, orchestras have been more up front about not filling positions, said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant and author of the blog Adaptistration.com. For example, Minnesota, Chicago, Baltimore and Atlanta have all made agreements between management and musicians to leave positions open as a cost-containment measure. The terms, most of which are publicly available, usually have clear deadlines for when vacancies must be filled. The Minnesota agreement, for example, allowed for ten vacancies in the 2009-2010 season, which have to be reduced to four by 2011-2012. “As soon as finances are such as they can do it, we tend to see these spots get filled,” said Jay Blumenthal, financial vice president at Local 802. The Minnesota Orchestra declined to comment.
In the past several decades, orchestral auditions have only gotten more competitive. A section position for a major orchestra might have 200-300 applicants, and then 100 will be invited to actually audition, said Jonathan Mednick, CEO of MyAuditions.com, an orchestra job posting website. Available jobs have decreased as well, he said. “Three years ago, we were averaging 300 plus jobs per month, and recently we averaged about 120.”
While it may seem strange that such a plethora of qualified musicians could result in a no-hire, it does happen with some frequency. People interviewed for this story recalled no-hire auditions at orchestras including Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and other symphonies. One notable exception is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which has a policy to always hire someone from an audition.
“At times you hear these great candidates who play flawlessly,” said Bruce Ridge, a bass player and chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians [ICSOM]. "But just like personality plays a role in life, the person who might be the perfect fit in one orchestra might not fit in another.”
Multiple openings – such as the New York Philharmonic’s three section cello spots, all three of which remained empty after a recent audition – can actually make it harder for a committee to come to an agreement, said McManus, the arts consultant. “When there’s a large ratio of openings, three players will have a substantial impact on the collective sound.”
And there’s a sense of permanence to the hiring process.
“Once you hire someone, you’re pretty much married to that person until they leave,” said Robert Levine, principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony and senior editor of website Polyphonic.org. “It’s a permanent investment.”
Sometimes the logistics of holding an audition get in the way. The Boston Symphony, which has a reputation for holding auditions that result in no-hires, usually manages to schedule about five or six auditions a year. “The Boston Symphony's main constraint has been scheduling auditions within the BSO's calendar of activities,” said spokeswoman Bernadette Horgan.
At other times consensus is impossible. While in some orchestras the director has final say, others assign a number of votes to both the committee and director. “In some cases committees and music directors arrive at a Mexican standoff where they can both pull the trigger,” said McManus. “If they can’t get each other’s way, they’ll make sure that no one gets their way.”
Musicians said persistent vacancies can have a detrimental effect on artistic product. “When positions stay open too long, it undermines the orchestra as a product,” said Ridge, of ICSOM. “You can’t just keep plugging in substitutes. They’re wonderful, but they don’t become part of your artistic family.”
Unfilled vacancies can eventually decrease the quality of the applicant pool, said Raymond Hair, president of the American Federation of Musicians. “Out there in Federation field, if an orchestra gets a reputation of never picking a winner, then it will have a chilling effect on the attraction of applicants for that position.”
Ultimately, some say the crux of the problem lies with the audition process itself. “Auditions are an artificial setting,” said an administrator at a mid-level orchestra, who declined to be named. “Let’s say someone plays great, but isn’t a good citizen. How do we figure that out?”
“It’s a terrible process, except no one has come up with a better one,” said Yeo, the bass trombonist. “It’s like what people say about our government – it’s the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others.”