Monday, May 14, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part VI

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part V...

Tim Rawlings, the Calgary Phil personnel manager, told us that the semifinal round would start right away. The committee would hear this round without a screen, and they would have us begin with a concerto movement - excerpts would also be asked, but again we wouldn't know which ones until 10 minutes before we were to play. They would keep the five semifinalists in the same order as we had played the prelims, meaning that I would go last, and my friend Karl Fenner would be second.

It was exhilarating to get advanced - sort of like a delayed applause after a performance you aren't certain went over that well. In this audition especially, I really wanted to perform for the committee and to convey something of myself, not just show how the notes lined up on the page. It may be a subtle distinction, but I think sometimes we try to be safe, color within the lines, make the most standard choices, and just hope we do this better than anyone else! As a result, I think we risk sounding boring, careful, and rigid, and we create a lot of extra pressure on ourselves. Because when you take a cookie-cutter approach, every stray lump of dough sticks out, and mars that illusion of perfection you're trying to create.

Of course, I would like to play perfectly as well. I've realized, though, that my best playing comes when I'm really trying to communicate the music, not just execute it (what a terrible word!) It's difficult to communicate when you're getting nothing back - the committee had not spoken in the first round, so the announcement that I had advanced was my first signal from them. I don't need constant applause and compliments - I'm not that insecure, really! - but I think that we do depend on our audience to help sustain our performance. We read their facial expressions, their body language, whether fidgeting or yawning or leaning forward, and those reactions do affect us as performers. All this is to see, I was very happy to have advanced, and excited to play without a screen. I felt now I would be able to open up a little more, show some personality, and make a case for myself as a prospective colleague.

First though, I was concerned that I hadn't eaten since 8 am, and now I would be playing at 2:30 or so. I had brought a couple of apples, thinking I'd at least have the time to go across the street and buy a sandwich. Strangely, though, it seemed like the only way to leave the building was to cross the stage itself - where the semifinals would begin any minute! - and there was no easy way to re-enter either. So I was basically stuck there for the duration. I dug out all my Canadian coins, bought a granola bar in the vending machine, and hoped that my adrenaline would keep me going, even if my stomach couldn't!

Back in my dressing room, I looked over all the excerpts I hadn't yet played. There were some scary ones - Mozart 35, the 3rd and 4th movements of Schubert 9, the march from Beethoven 9... And all those first round excerpts could still be asked again - I tried starting the Beethoven 5 Scherzo a couple of times, and reminded myself how all those Heldenleben arpeggios worked! Mostly though, I just wanted to take it easy, not get too tense or tired, since I had already played for 2 hours or so. Put the bass down, take some deep breaths, get centered again...

It was around 2:30 when they called me down to the on-deck room. Meaning each person was taking around 15 minutes, somewhat longer than the prelims. Just as in that round, there were three excerpts on the stand: Britten's Young Person's Guide, the Scherzo from Schubert 9, and the recitatives from Beethoven 9.

I was feeling pretty good about everything - my sound seemed open and warm, the tricky arpeggios in Schubert 9 and even the high stuff in the Vanhal Concerto seemed mostly under control. Of course, I had left my music for the concerto back in Miami, and all I had were photocopies of the first two pages. If they wanted to hear more, though, I thought I had it memorized pretty well. Tim Rawlings came in, along with another proctor - apparently they had decided that carrying my stool and helping me onstage was a two-man operation. I must have been flustered by all the attention, though, because I dropped my metronome off the stand. It went caroming off the side of my bass and fractured into several pieces on the floor. Tim and the other guy seemed a little freaked out, but I wasn't going to let it break my composure. We found all the scattered pieces, left them in a little pile there, and headed towards the stage.

As we were about to go on, Tim asked me how I would like to be introduced. Did I want him to say I was from Miami, Florida? I told him to say I'm from Tacoma, Washington, and that I play in the New World Symphony in Miami. Maybe it wouldn't make any difference for the committee, but I wanted to be at least clear and honest about where I come from!

I looked out and smiled at the committee - they were kind of a blur, 6 or 8 or maybe 12, I wasn't certain - but at least they were real people! And I recognized Donovan Seidle, a violinist colleague at the Civic Orchestra of Chicago who is now the associate concertmaster in Calgary. I thought of a comment someone had given me at a mock audition: can the concerto sound more inviting? I didn't quite know how I was going to do it, but I wanted to make the Vanhal into a big, joyous, welcoming invitation - I'm nice, please get to know me better!

I played through the exposition, then went on to the development, the end of page two, they still hadn't stopped me! I wasn't going to look at the stand, because I knew the notes I was playing weren't written down anywhere there - I still felt like I was communicating, sending my sound out, and getting some resonance from the hall though. I reached the last chord before the cadenza before they stopped me. I think I must have missed a note or bungled a phrase or two somewhere, but honestly all I remember is that great feeling of performing!

If the Vanhal was my chance to be outgoing and welcoming, the Britten was where I was going to be fun and maybe a little silly. It starts off hesitantly, not quite sure where it's going, then lands decisively in G major for this big, exuberant theme. When I played for Harry Shapiro, back in February, he wanted me to sing that theme as loud as I could, really shout it out. When I play it now, I always remember the two of us, me and this 92-year-old retired BSO horn player, belting that theme at the top of our lungs!

Next was Schubert 9, one of my favorite pieces, but one of my scariest excerpts. It starts fortissimo with sforzandi on each downbeat, leaping across the strings, and then lands surprisingly in distant D-flat major, whispering up a series of arpeggios before swelling and returning to G major, even more powerfully than before. That drop to piano always feels a little like opening a parachute in mid-dive - you hope it will open, and you'll sail securely on, but there's always a risk of crashing and burning! This time, the parachute opened, I got that hushed sound I was going for, but I had to remind myself not to lose tempo, to keep it rolling and dancing along through the last three notes.

Of all the excerpts on the list, Beethoven 9 was the one I felt most eager to play. I'd been singing recitatives in the shower for the past two weeks, trying to find a flexibility and a sense of urgency in each one. Charles Carleton suggested I think of the time as a big rubber band - each recitative starts in tempo, stretches, and then recovers momentum again. Beyond that, listen to a lot of Baroque recitatives, he said, like those in Handel's Messiah: "And I will shake the heavens, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land..." In the end though, I didn't really have time to imagine the Messiah, or test Charles' big rubber band; I just had to trust all his good advice had been absorbed, and make the music as I felt it in that moment.

The whole round felt really solid and gratifying, though of course there are no sure bets in an audition. I though I had presented something personal and heartfelt, though, and if they didn't like it then I could accept that. Because I did like it, I would have advanced myself - and that's the highest standard I could hope for. I packed my bass again, gathered up my metronome (all the pieces fit back together again, luckily), and headed down to the lounge again to wait.

I was actually the oldest of the semifinalists - the others were all in their mid-20s. One was a student of my former teacher, Don Palma; another was Karl Fenner, my friend from Spoleto and an incoming member of the New World Symphony; Ellen Stewart, who goes to the Cincinnati Conservatory; and a student of Dennis Trembly at USC named Theodore. A couple of bassists who'd been cut earlier were still around too, waiting to hear the results I guess. It was odd being the elder statesman in the room, telling everyone about New World and life after college. They all seemed like great people, and I was hoping I could convince some of them (besides Karl) to want to audition and come down to New World.

I think I was describing the wonders of Oktoberfest, our biggest annual party, when Tim Rawlings came down again. Everyone was around except Theodore, who I think had found some way to get outside and smoke a cigarette. In a moment he was back, though, and Tim made the announcement.

The committee had decided to advance two people to the finals: Theodore, and me. They had determined that both were qualified, and so one of us would definitely be offered a job today. The excerpts would be Mozart 40, the Trio to Beethoven 5, and the recitatives from Beethoven 9. The music director would be present, and he would possibly conduct the recitatives.

And they would start immediately - first Theodore, and then me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh the suspense!

I work in that building. It's weird to run into someone on the internet who's also been there. :) That photo looks like it predates the installation of the organ.