When is it OK to reaudition musicians for their jobs?

When is it OK to reaudition musicians for their jobs?


norman lebrecht

August 24, 2011

Reports have reached me over the past couple of days that players in the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, which makes its UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival tonight, are required once a year to prove their competence, or lose their jobs.

This sounded, at first impression, not dissimilar to the situation at the Brazil Symphony Orchestra, where three-dozen musicians have been fired after refusing to reaudition, provoking an international boycott. But when I discussed these conditions with the music director Myung-Whun Chung, a rather softer picture emerged.

Chung stated the case that Korea had never in its history had a symphonic orchestra of international standing. ‘When the city of Seoul asked me to undertake this task, I said you need four elements: 1 player for player, a certain level; 2 a conductor who can bring the best out of them; 3 continuous financial support; and 4 time.’

All city officials in Seoul receive an annual evaluation. Musicians are not excepted. ‘It’s not a reaudition as such,’ says Chung, ‘but an obligation we have to face.’

Every years, over the past five years, ‘about four percent’ of the musicians have been let go. But rather than getting thrown on the scrapheap like the Brazilians, the musicians are moved to other duties. ‘We take care of them as best as possible,’ says the conductor. Some go on to play in the secondary orchestra, which give free concerts in each of the 25 districts of the capital. Others are employed to assist and encourage young players who are seeking a place in the orchestra. ‘Older players, past their best playing days, still make an important contribution to the orchestra through their transmission of culture, tradition and their maturity,’ says artistic adviser Michael Fine.

‘Every player we check once a year for a few minutes,’ says Chung. ‘I dream of the day that it won’t happen any more. This is an orchestra that tries to improve daily. The day we can’t do that, I will leave.’

The overseas players in the orchestra are of the highest international calibre. The principal trumpet, from Paris, has just been hired by the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The orchestra has won a 10-CD contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Chung, it seems to me, is performing a declicate task with great sensitivity. I am in touch with several members of the orchestra and hear few complaints. Others can learn from this model.

I hear that reuaditions are coming in soon at a major European orchestra in dire need of improvement. Watch this space



  • Luc Knoedler says:

    Reauditons happened more often, I believe. Back in the early 1970s the Rotterdam Philharmonic and its then chief-conductor Edo de Waart decided to improve the orchestra’s quality through reauditions. Redundancies could count on the financial support of the City of Rotterdam, however. An elegant solution De Waart insisted .

    When in the 1980 three Dutch orchestras merged in the Netherlands Philharmonic, reauditons took place also.

    The merge of the NL-Hilversum-based Radio Symphonie Orkest and the Radio Kamer Orkest in 2004, resulting in the Radio Kamerfilharmonie, followed a different procedure; members of the former ensembles older than 55 of age got a redundancy pay also. Anyhow, this new orchestra, a truly fine one embracing a majority of young musicians, will be wiped out next year, due to the severe austerity measures of the current Dutch government. As a consequence of this policy at random, even the position of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, which easily measures with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, is at risk as well, it seems.

    For your information, the thoroughly disproprotionate cuts in culture in the Netherlands also affects, among other, the Meemanno Westreniamum in The Hague, the world’s oldest museum of books; it may well have to close its doors.

    This is a trend, a worldwide one, I believe, as the reknowned British historian Erica Hobsbawm pointed out correctly also:

    “Technology revolutionized the arts most obviously by making them omnipresent. Radio had already brought sounds – words and music into most households in the developed world, and continued its penetration of the backward world (…) The gramophone or record player was already ancient (…) By the 1980s music could be everywhere (…) This technological revolution had political as well as cultural consequences (….) Television became as readily portable as radio (…) The mass demand was overwhelming (…) Yet technology not only made the arts omnipresent, but transformed their position.

    Chapter 17 from Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes – A History of the World, 1914-1991 (Londen, 1994)

    In short: “Technology transformed the world of the arts, though that of the popular arts and entertainments earlier and more completely than that of the “high arts”, especially the more traditional ones.

    What is more, I should add, one of the most underestimated issues of today is the marginalization of the craft, worldwide. All the more so as possessing a craft, having gained it thoroughly, is essentially more substantial than just having an expertness or ability. Do see Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman!

  • Joe C says:

    Professionals in many fields are commonly evaluated. School teachers are typically evaluated 2-3 times per year, usually by their administrators. There is a standard proceedure with comments, rebuttals, and due process. Actually, the administrators have far less interaction with educators, wherein conductors have intimate face to face knowledge and interaction with orchestra members. Most administrators have a few scant hours if actual observation(s) of educators, where a conductor is face to face with the orchestra member constantly. Although the process does have potential for abuse, a well worded and actuated collective bargaining agreement with the orchestra members and management should be the norm for such proceedures. Yearly evaluations may be a little much. Perhaps every 2-3 or 3-5 years might suffice. Most orchestra musicians could also submit outside performances, recitals, etc as evidence of maintaining their skill levels. There should be a due process paradigm so as to NOT allow personailties to interfere with the actual performance. Perhaps a panel with musician’s peers alongside management and the conductor(s) might be a good model.

  • pearl says:

    and, does Chung receive an evaluation for a few minutes once a year?

  • Luc Knoedler says:

    Shouldn’t we put facts such as the state funding of orchestras and operahouses in perpective? After WWII the parliaments of Western-European nations decided that their ‘infrastrucuture’, both physical and non-physical, should be considered the responsibility of the state. All main political parties, Christian-Democrats, the Social-Democrats and the Liberals, agreed, albeit from different points of views. Generally, they shared the wish to boost the economy in all respects. Keeping the food prices low through farm subsidies, for instance, should create more space for consumption of other goods. Anyhow, via taxes since the state funds roads, railways, bridges and waterways, as well as social security and, among many other, education and also cultural institutions to be considered the non-physical or immaterial infrastructure. Actually, the UK’s National Health Service was and actually still is one of the consequences of this principle, which could be characterized by the striving for inclusiveness – a principle in order to bridge the social classes. Whether it is sustainable today or not, is another issue.

    If you wish to compare what is or has been usage in the US, do look at its physical infrastructure and how this has been maintained. Today, its current state looks quite gloomy, to put it mildly. I should right away add, that this seems to be the very consequence of a mentality today among businesses and users – consumers – no longer willing to consistently invest in their society, I suspect. In sharp contrast to the many decades, or shouldn’t I say: one and a half century previous to the 1980s. Is it still useful to compare or oppose what seemsregarding the arts and culture? I tend to say that it is totally useless.

    Anyhow, every self-respecting town in Europe got its own orchestra and a museum, founded by its citizens, before and also after WWII. In the 1970s a small country such as the Netherlands mantained many of such institutions – virtually 20 orchestras also. This proliferation had to be stopped and cut down actually, of course. For your information, the state funding of orchestras in the Netherlands actually started during the 5 years the Nazi armies occupied the country. Ironically? However, this was usage in Germany. Furthermore, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw’s main hall, famous for its brilliant acoustics (since 1888), was inspired by that of the Neue Gewandhaus in Leipzig (1883-1945). [The orchestra pit of the current Gewandhaus in Leipzig was inspired by the one of the main concert hall of De Doelen in Rotterdam.] More importantly, after the famous Meininger Hofkapelle under the bâton of its chief-conductor Hans von Bülow and of Johannes Brahms introducing his 4th Sympony in Amsterdam in 1885, a group of the city’s leading notables wishing an orchestra of equal quality, decided to created both the hall mentioned and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – since 1988 the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

    In the early 1840s the composer Robert Schumann compared the symphony orchestra to a nation state of self-assured citizens and therefore an obvious example for its audience. Forward-looking he surely was, for some 125 years the orchestra was considered one of the rich fruits of the ‘éducation permanente’, a major source of ‘Reflexionsbildung’. The major American orchestras, such as the Philadelphia and the Boston Symphony, stem from such state of mind, don’t they? However, as social anthroplogists and behavioral scientists confirm today, it is not the size of his brains that distinguishes the human being from other mamals, but his capacity to cooperate mutually, regardless origin, culture and gender. Actually, close cooperation improves our empathy increasingly, it appears, whereas in my view also the actual manifestation of the symphony orchestra live was and is the obvious proof of it. It is the proof of the Play Theory advocated in 1938 by the famous Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga: the play connects and liberates people at the same time. It no longer does to general audiences that much; it seems that quite a few people consider it as an obsolete institution, suspecting that an orchestra actually suppresses individuality. Well, I did read Norman Lebrecht’s Maestro Myth among his other books and he did tell us a lot more than I am able to repeat here and now. Anyhow, some people even seem appalled, calling the orchestra militaristic, simply unimpressed as they also are of the wonderful fruits of Venezulean music education program El Sistema, such as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and its young conductor Gustavo Dudamel. When its founder José Antonio Abreu visited the Netherlands to receive the Erasmus Prize in November last year, he on his turn was appalled by the Dutch government’s announcement publically threatening the finest orchestras. Firm guys, though guys! As a matter of fact, this was and actually is a brutal assault on the imagination expressed also of Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Orchestra, as well as of scientists of all kinds. Distrust reigns, due to total lack of education, I am afraid.

    However, to quote the British historian Eric Hobsbawn once more: “Technology transformed the world of the arts, though that of the popular arts and entertainments earlier and more completely than that of the “high arts”, especially the more traditional ones.” Among these “more traditional ones” also Jazz, Hobsbawm’s favorite music.

    During the 1980s working as a music critic for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad and reviewing all kinds of concerts throughout the country and abroad, I noticed what I then called the Waning of the Symphony Orchestra in my home country. This was confirmed by my experience in the international record industry later on in Hamburg, London and elswhere. As secondary and higher education, it seemed under the spell of the entertainments. The necessary restructuring the Dutch band system nation wide, as mentioned above, walked dead meanwhile, unfortunately. Well, we just recently got the big bill, all the more so as the current Dutch government’s severe austerity measures disproportionately and at random affects the performing arts, dismantling the countries supreme qualities – among other a highly developed musical culture, diverse and consistent to the core, might be ruined within a couple of years. Under the spell of neo-liberals in a most paternalistic manner pointing at the citizens’ individual responsibility and of an obvioulsy culturally self-inflicting ultra right-wing political party advocating the superiority of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ (sic!) European culture, meanwhile opposing the very need for further European integration and as a consequence, it seems, gaining an increasing support.

    Why being sad since the orchestra is ingraining elsewhere, in South America since long, in China, in Japan since many decades, in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore, also underlining the waning of the presumed predominant Western world? However, didn’t the former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Anan point out that the functioning of a society depends on the way its institutions operate adequately? He was terribly right, I think. In my view, the symphony orchestra belongs to this category of institutions/ A major one, meanwhile linking the past, present and future – after all recalling the views of Robert Schumann once more.

  • Joe C says:

    Luc…maybe I missed it somewhere in your missive, but where is there a semblance of commentary on the concept of performance evaluations for the members of an orchestra? This article is an internally focused concept, and you continuously ramble on the place of the orchestra in society….Am I missing something ?