How to pass a Boston audition? Play The Swan

Extracted from a touching reminiscence of the dear, departed Jules Eskin by his friend, Arnold Steinhardt.

While I was assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, I shared a house for a period of time with Jules Eskin, the principal cellist. Over coffee one morning, Jules told me that The Carnival of the Animals had been scheduled for a future concert and that he would be playing the cello solo. From that point on, Jules practiced “The Swan” daily. The snippets of phrases I would hear as I passed in and out of our house sounded beautiful, but Jules, apparently unsatisfied, continued to work on it. I was amused at first. Granted, “The Swan” is a lovely melody, but it baffled me how much time Jules devoted to something so simple, so naïve.

One day, Jules called me into the living room where he practised and asked my advice on how to shape a particular phrase of the solo. He played the phrase and looked up questioningly. To the best of my recollection, it sounded utterly convincing in Jules’ hands and for the moment, I could think of nothing to say. He played the same phrase once more with a small but discernible difference. I remember voicing an opinion and then offering a suggestion or two. Jules played the phrase again and again — softly and intimately in one version, more intensely in another — pausing each time so that we could talk about the phrasing inflections he had just crafted. Finally, Jules thanked me for my input while ruefully concluding that he was still not sure what was best. Our discussion about a section of music lasting no more than fifteen seconds had taken easily five minutes….

…  I brought up our “Swan” encounter recently. To my surprise, Jules had no recollection of the fierce battle he once waged in his living room some fifty years ago. The event must have made some subliminal impression on him, however. Jules told me he asks cellists auditioning for the Boston Symphony to play “The Swan.” He looks for musicality, tone production, intonation, bow control, and artistry in a prospective cellist. Jules said, “Once I hear a cellist play ‘The Swan,’ I know absolutely everything I need to know.”

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  • A very poignant article and one that describes what it takes to be a true artist. Heard BSO and Mahler 6. He led the cellos section as if he were 50 not 84. Fabulous artist of the highest order

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