Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part VII

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part VI...
Audition flashback: May 2003, the morning after the Chicago Civic Orchestra's last concert, I fly down to Naples, Florida for the Naples Philharmonic section bass audition. I catch a 7 am flight, and I am scheduled to play at 1 pm the same day - unfortunately, my bass doesn't arrive! I find out it was left behind in Chicago's Midway airport.

Having nothing else to do, I rent a car, drive to the audition, and explain the situation. The orchestra staff is unbelievably nice, they tell the committee and one of the bass players offers to let me use his bass. He'll go and get it at the lunch break, so I'll have an hour or so to practice on it before I play. In the meantime, I study my excerpts, trying to imagine how I can possibly bring them off on some unfamiliar bass. I borrow a German bow from a friend at the audition, go in without expecting anything, and just let it fly. They advance me to the semifinals, and then later to the finals.

I'm one of four finalists, and each of us plays through the Beethoven 9 recitatives with music director Christopher Seaman conducting. It's the farthest I've ever gotten in an audition, and this bass and I have barely met eachother - somehow though, I'm pulling out all the stops and playing beyond myself.

Not far enough, though - the position goes to Matt Medlock, who has been subbing in Naples for most of the season, and they name me runner-up. The next morning I drive back to the airport and take home my unopened bass trunk, which has just arrived for its first brief visit to Florida...

As I unpack my bass in the warm-up room, I'm trying to remember all the positive aspects of that audition four years ago - and not the disappointment of being runner-up. It's a fantastic accomplishment, making the finals and all; but I spent months afterwards trying to figure out how it went so well, and why it just wasn't good enough. The conclusion I reached was that my instrument couldn't make or break me - without it, I had to focus more on the musical qualities I wanted to project, and that was liberating. But how to recreate that experience, to depend entirely on your ear and intuition without worrying over technique? It seemed as though I would have to let it go as a freak occurrence, the discovery of a great potential I could never really tap into again.

But now I'm in a strikingly similar situation, about to play the same recitatives conducted by the Calgary Phil music director, Roberto Minczuk (shown here). Can I summon up the freedom, let go of all the technical nuts and bolts, and be in the music as I was back then? There is a certain amount of baggage handling that goes with playing the same instrument every day - this string needs extra tweaking, this note speaks funny, or that stroke won't start without a certain nudge... We become like tinkerers rather than artists. Without sacrificing my sound and facility, I want to let all that tinkering go, to become a vessel or instrument myself, so I can follow every nuance that Minczuk wants.

First, though, I have to play Mozart 40 - some of the most technically tricky excerpts in the literature. It's the main theme of the movement, but now transfigured into a call and response between the basses and the violins, interspersed with driving eighth note passages. My NWS colleague Matt Way came back from his Rotterdam audition (where he was also - yikes! - runner-up) raving about how they play Mozart in Europe - all of the passagework so active, full of dynamics and life and direction, even when the only marking is a simple f. I don't want to be over-the-top, but I try to bring out the direction and shape, leaving some room to develop the rising scales all the way to the peak, and then phrasing with the violin theme through all those repeated A's.

The last movement excerpts are even faster, and just as thorny technically. My fingering was a gift from Paul Ellison, one of those fancy thumb maneuvers that I never would have thought of on my own, but it actually works wonderfully. It saves me some nasty string crossings as well! Paul talks about achieving such fluidity in these licks that he actually dared the conductor to go faster - wave your stick as fast as you can, I'll still nail it. I wouldn't go that far, but I do play them both pretty damn fast, so that when I finish I'm wound up and a little breathless.

And now comes Beethoven 5, the Trio only - which was in the prelim, and I felt good about. Could there be some twist, something they're looking for that didn't come across the first time around? I don't want to second guess the committee, though. I play it around the same tempo, the same articulation and try to emphasize the direction in all those quarter notes, and the bounding 3-1 quality of the time. And they don't say anything - Maestro Minczuk rises from his seat, and joins me onstage.

This is one of the strangest moments. As an orchestral bass player, I'm most comfortable at a distance of 20 feet or so from the conductor - I've almost never sat closer than 10. And yet, now he's about 5 to 7 feet away, off to my right, and I'm turned towards him so the committee is watching both of us in profile. I briefly consider where to put my music, and decide I'm not going to look at it anyway, so the less obtrusive, the better.

He raises his baton, and gives me two quick preparatory beats - here we go! His beat is very clear and incisive - sitting so close, I feel like my sound is almost dragging behind, but I try to keep the singing quality and fill out all the notes. After the first recitative, he puts his hands down and gives me some directions: a longer quarter-note upbeat, more sound and direction to the low G, longer quarter-notes at the end of the phrase. Almost before I have time to process it all, he raises his hands again and gives me another chance.

I'm glad I can play these from memory, because keeping up with his hands and directions is taking all of my focus. Each statement is the same pattern, a run-through, a series of instructions, and another try - and as much as I try to anticipate what he wants, there's always something more. Smoother connected eighth notes, a more soaring line, longer quarter-notes - always the quarter-notes longer, until I almost feel I'm hanging over into the rests. MTT often talks about how we musicians tend to make tiny corrections, whereas an actor will grossly exaggerate, take things to an extreme, before bringing it back. I want to be tasteful, but still show a range and flexibility, a willingness to accomodate to his unfamiliar interpretation.

I finish with two very long quarter notes - they sound with a nice resonance in the hall though. After playing alone all day, trying to show my personality and intentions without a guide, it's a completely different experience following a conductor. It feels good, if a bit mentally draining - Minczuk asks for a lot, focusing on details of articulation, shape, and phrasing, and I think I could really enjoy working with him.

As I pick up my things and prepare to leave the stage, a member of the committee asks me a question: why didn't I play those low octaves in the Ein Heldenleben excerpt? I try to formulate the least damning answer possible, but it still comes out sounding bad. I didn't realize until the moment I was on stage that the excerpt continued through 13, so I wasn't really prepared to play those extra lines, and I sure wasn't going to attempt any extension-opening stealth maneuvers! Maybe admitting "I wasn't prepared" was not the best way to end my audition performance, but I still leave the stage feeling satisfied, happy to have survived and made the most of this day.

Now comes the moment of truth, time to wait for the final verdict. Or else they still might want to hear some more - it's fairly common to hold several final rounds, bringing the same two or three candidates back until they're completely worn down. Some orchestras will even bring all the finalists onstage at once, and have a sort of excerpt shoot-off, or hold an interview round.

Today though, I have a feeling the last note has been played. I shake Theodore's hand and we introduce ourselves. He goes to school at USC, and I tell him that my twin brother Dan also works there. Dan does graphic design work for the various schools, as well as the website - I try to explain all this, and how until recently Dan worked in the undergraduate library, but very rarely left his cubicle or met any students! He still does play the bassoon though, and occasionally goes to concerts at the school of music.

I'm still babbling about my brother when Tim emerges - the committee has reached a decision. He brings us both just off stage, where the committee members are all gathering. I can see now that they aren't so many, maybe 6 or 7 people. One of them winks at me, I think I notice... could it be?

Like all orchestra personnel managers and TV reality hosts, Tim begins his announcement with a series of polite remarks - thank you for coming, the committee was impressed and appreciative of the high standard of playing, etc., etc. We're both standing there uncertain when to breathe, when the news is going to break. Then Tim turns to me and says, "They have decided to offer you the position," and shakes my hand.

I'm overjoyed, but I don't know what to do or say. Looking over at Theodore, I can feel all the disappointment of coming so close. We shake hands and hug - whatever the outcome, even if we've never heard each other play, we've shared a whole lot today, and gone through the same experiences, hopes and challenges.

The other members of the committee crowd around: Charles Garrett, the principal bassist who asked me about my Heldenleben transpositions; Sheila Garrett, the assistant principal and wife of Charles; Donovan Seidle, the assistant concertmaster who I played with in Chicago Civic; bassist Graeme Mudd; and bassist Trish Bereti-Reid, possibly the one who winked. There may have been more as well - but I'm not really counting, just shaking hands and beaming.

(One more installment to come, thank you for reading and please visit again! - MH)


JoelKN said...

I have been reading all your posts on this subject. It is really fascinating, and I really enjoy it. Would it be possible to share the fingering from Ellison, or would you prefer not. It is ok if not, but I am having a bit of trouble with the string crossing in Mozart 40. Let me know and thanks alot!
(Ps: Congradulations on the audition!)

Brian Roessler said...

If I don't miss my guess, the fingering Matt's talking about actually orginiated with François Rabbath, then came to Matt through Paul. Once when I played this excerpt for François he jumped up and said "Oh! I have a very good one for this!" and showed it to me. I haven't had the luck to win an audition with it yet like Matt, but I have had many fine bassists ogle it when I've played it... That said I'll be happy to post the version I have somehow and compare it to Matt's - I bet they're pretty much the same!

Brian Roessler said...

Here's a link to the fingering for anyone who's interested....

Matt Heller said...

I guess my computer chops aren't quite at audition speed - I have no idea how to put that 'ç' in François (other than copying from Brian's comment!), and I spent an hour messing with Finale to no avail.

My fingering differs from Brian somewhat - maybe his is the more evolved version, and mine is Rabbath for Dummies! Starting with the B-flat lick:

On D string________ G__D G__D
+31+ +31+ +131 2142 0214 0214...

and the C minor:

D str_______G_ D______________G_
+21+ +21+ +21+ 21+1 +313 +313 +31+

D_____________G__ D_____
31+2 1414 1414 1010 4012 4...

This may possibly make sense to bass players - others will probably find this the most bizarre and cryptic comment thread ever!

Brian Roessler said...

The secret to the ç (at least on a Mac): option-c

I'm pretty sure I'm the only dummy in this conversation although I do like the lack of string crossings in "my" version of the fingering...

JoelKN said...

Brain and Matt,
Thanks for helping me out with that! What a great idea! It really works well and I can really just fly over those notes with this fingering! Thanks to both of you, I really appreciate it!

Matt Heller said...

I'm glad we could help! If I can help one bass player fly effortlessly through Mozart 40, I will not have blogged in vain.

High-fives, Brian!