Many job openings in major orchstras

This article is from The New York Times, July 6.

“The nation is bleeding jobs, unemployment stands at almost 10 percent, and lines run long at job fairs. But in one microscopic sliver of the economy, the pickings are rich: major orchestras.
Next season the New York Philharmonic will have a rare 12 openings, or roughly 12 percent of its instrumental work force, thanks to a confluence of retirements, departures for better jobs and long-unfilled positions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has 10 vacancies, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 9, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic 7.

Elsewhere the Cleveland Orchestra has four full-time job openings and one part-time. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and Dallas Symphony each have three openings.

“We haven’t had this many for quite a while, not for 20 years,” said Carl R. Schiebler, the New York Philharmonic’s personnel director and its maestro of musician management. “A lot is six or seven.”

In New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the many openings create unusual opportunities for new music directors to deepen their imprints on their orchestras. They also present, at least in the short term, the risk of subtly eroding the highly cultivated sense of ensemble and tradition of sound and style that exist in orchestras at their level.

The New York Philharmonic, the leader in Help Wanted signs, has openings for principal clarinetist, bass clarinetist and second flutist in the woodwinds; two section violinists, two section cellists and three double bassists, including assistant principal; and associate principal horn player. In addition, the third horn player, Erik Ralske, who has been filling in as associate principal, has confirmed that he is fielding offers from elsewhere.

Not that audiences will be seeing empty chairs. Orchestras hire substitutes for section jobs. Assistant principals move up temporarily into the top positions.

These posts, naturally, are rarefied and have little to do with the normal job picture nationwide. But the number of openings prompts the question of why so many spots stand vacant in a market glutted with talented musicians looking to move up to better orchestras or just to find jobs.

The economy has had an effect. It is cheaper to leave jobs unfilled and to pay substitutes, who usually receive close to the minimum base pay and fewer benefits. Starting salaries at the 10 top-paying orchestras next season range from $101,600 (Minnesota) to $136,500 (Los Angeles), but principal players can earn two or three times that.

Sometimes orchestras negotiate with their unions to keep jobs open for financial reasons. In Chicago the players agreed to let four vacancies stand last season and next for budgetary reasons. At other times management does it informally, said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. He criticized the practice. “No business ever solved a financial problem by offering an inferior product to the public,” he said.

Music director transitions have also delayed hiring. Conductors on their way out often defer to their successors, who will, after all, have to live with the new musicians, and vice versa. Lorin Maazel, whose tenure in New York ended last year, left several openings to his successor, Alan Gilbert, who in his first season has already filled positions for two violinists, a trombonist, French horn player and, on June 25, a percussionist. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Gustavo Dudamel took over last season, provided the same explanation. Riccardo Muti begins his tenure in Chicago in September.

The elaborate logistical demands of orchestral auditions cause delays. First auditions are advertised. Then time must pass for applicants to send in résumés and tapes and practice the assigned excerpts from the orchestral literature. A committee of players, usually in the section, has to be formed, and preliminary rounds of auditions have to be scheduled. After the finalists are chosen, a time must be found when the busy music director and committee members can hear them. The process can easily stretch out for many months.

Often no winner is chosen. That happened last year with the Philharmonic’s principal clarinet job. Two rounds of auditions for associate principal horn player and a double bassist also produced no result. The music director in New York has final say but makes the decision in consultation with the committee.

The Boston Symphony usually has a high number of openings, because the demands on the players — the Tanglewood festival, the Boston Pops and regular concerts — make scheduling auditions especially difficult, as does the orchestra’s system of hiring based on a two-thirds majority in committee.

The finest musician can have a bad day: it’s a paradox of the process, in which less than an hour of playing is supposed to determine whether a musician is suitable for the continual day in, day out life of an orchestra member. And in another contradiction, the aspirants play alone for a job that depends on group effort. (Winners are usually on probation for a year or two, effectively a tryout with the ensemble.) On occasion, when no winner is chosen, established orchestral players from elsewhere will be invited to play as guests in a kind of informal tryout. It’s an imperfect system, but no one has figured out a better one.

Technical proficiency is only part of the test. Members of the orchestra weigh whether a candidate plays with strong character yet can blend, match the ensemble’s style and be a colleague they are willing to work with possibly for decades to come.

Orchestra officials and musicians are loath to discuss the auditioning process in detail, and screens are used to hide the auditioner’s identity from his judges, in the interest of fairness. In a statement, Mr. Gilbert said, “We’re looking for the best musicians, people with a human quality that makes them uniquely right for the New York Philharmonic.”

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