Exclusive: Boston’s principal oboe demands better auditions

Exclusive: Boston’s principal oboe demands better auditions


norman lebrecht

December 23, 2018

John Ferrillo, principal oboe of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has written the following article exclusively for Slipped Disc:

I am writing this statement as the Elizabeth Rowe litigation is in progress. It is my fervent hope that mediation, currently under way, will be productive and satisfactory to both my employer and Elizabeth. I am grateful that my peers have continued to be patient and supportive of their colleagues- most particularly, of course, of Elizabeth, who has earned that support every day, the last 14 years.

Needless to say, it has been an odd experience to have this story end up on the pages of so many news publications- even on cable news. I have been given a taste of the process which turns so many 3 dimensional, nuanced, personal situations into cardboard cutouts. There is a generous dollop of the intense national political polarization which has stimulated commentary from observers and readers, and, often, despite the honest efforts of numerous journalists, the commentary is either insensitive to important details of this case, or not aware of our industry’s methods of dealing with these difficult problems. I pray that, in relatively short order, this incident will be viewed in the rear view mirror.

However, as trying as this has been for everyone, it may also provide us with (dare I use this term)- a teachable moment. I have begun to read a great deal in the national press about how the issue of equality in hiring is handled in our profession, replete with statistics. Great concern has been expressed for having a level playing field- in the article in the Washington Post, of course, the area of gender neutrality was foremost. We are, now, officially, under the microscope of the national media, and the consequences of that are not yet clear. Running auditions has always been fraught with peril- one of the most difficult tasks we engage in. It has, unfortunately – for an art form – become what defines our era in classical music making. I will stay away from the topic of the negative impact on the aesthetic choices that young musicians and their teachers are forced to make in this environment, and focus on the issue of “fairness”.

The first, and most important thing I want to say is that I have been a proud participant both at the Met and in the BSO in what have been scrupulously run auditions. Elizabeth Rowe, in fact, was the first person to be hired under the current contractual clauses relating to audition procedure. The clauses set up a system similar, although not identical to, those of the Met’s, but with equally marvelous results, fine musicians have been hired, and there has not been attendant political tension within the communities, which can be so unpleasant to the ongoing social and professional function of an orchestra.

As I have, in every audition in which I have participated, remained behind the screen from beginning to end, I have at no moment been aware of the gender, race or geographic origin of an applicant. As importantly, outside of the way the player sounds, I have not been aware of that person’s schooling. In short, I have judged using my ears rather than my eyes.

This controversy dovetails, however, with what has been an ever growing concern of mine- that of whether orchestra auditions, in the modern era, have been “open”. It may be wise for both employers and musicians to review and even standardize, on a national level, what “open” means. We need to avoid any sign that we are running auditions in the US to maintain a special status as a privileged club. Newcomers of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds must be welcomed as applicants and potential future colleagues. I remember, when I first came to the Boston Symphony, being informed that a peer only achieves peer status upon receiving the blessed designation “tenured”. I disagree heartily. A peer can be a 19 year old candidate, a 60 year old veteran, a freelancer, a member of an ICSOM constituent ensemble- anyone with the aspiration of joining my orchestra. We must treat the people behind the screens as peers from the moment they utter their first note.

So- open- what does that mean, at least to me?
1. To allow a competent player a live hearing is critical. The sheer number of competent, trained
musicians is overwhelming, of course. In the BSO, a single vote on a taped audition is sufficient
to be passed into the “preliminaries”.
2. When a player is playing a preliminary audition, that preliminary should be run in a way that
clearly gives the benefit of the doubt to the player. Rather than eliminating someone in an early
round with many positive qualities who has uttered one questionable note, we are admonished
in Boston to err on the side of giving that person a chance to play again. As in numerous peer
orchestras, a candidate who receives close to the required number of votes can be voted on a
second time, in order to allow for this kind of consideration. More often than not, in Boston,
they are passed on to the next round.
3. Having discussed the comportment of committees towards first round players, it is also
necessary to discuss a couple points relating to later rounds. The number of applicants- I
repeat- is staggering, and large orchestra managements and players deserve a lot of sympathy
for the difficulty of this job. Nevertheless, an ongoing problem is that of prelims yielding very
low totals of players, and later rounds containing relatively high numbers of invitees. The result
is an environment where players listening are looking forward to “the real audition” or “the real
applicants”. If one advances 5% or less of auditionees from a first to a second round, it results in
a totally random selection. There is generally a much higher yield in early rounds at the Met and
the BSO, and invitees to later rounds are surrounded, in a screened environment, by equal or
greater numbers of their less well known peers.
4. Despite the difficulties during the transitional period from a retiring player or one who has been
released, with or without tenure, to a new hire, orchestras must be careful not to create
“realities on the ground”. Too many national auditions in recent years have had obvious
orientation towards players who, by invitation rather than audition, have had the inestimable
advantage of being a familiar colleague to panels, rather than an anonymous peer- worthy of
consideration, but not of advantage in the process. All too often, acting positions are picked
from either the known or the anointed. We live in an era of increasing technical virtuosity on
our instrument. It is instrumental virtuosity that should be rewarded, not virtuosity with a cell
phone. A diploma from a first rate school, or a treasured relationship with a great teacher is a
wonderful thing. It should not be a gateway to a new, inevitably corrupt orchestral world like
that of 80 years ago, with a built in class system of haves and have nots. HOW PEOPLE SOUND
should be the key.
5. Auditions must be held in an environment that is as devoid of orchestra politics as possible. The
desire to establish one’s status with the Music Director is a time honored motivation with
players. I recommend the incredible movie “Taking Sides” with Harvey Keitel- a portrayal of the attempted trial, for collaboration, of Wilhelm Furtwangler, by the occupying US Army. It is, at
once, a wise portrayal of figures caught within a strongly hierarchical system within an even
more authoritarian state, and a hilarious portrayal of the egos and weaknesses of the musicians-
in the case- title chair players in the Berlin Philharmonic. A critical element in auditions is closely
regulating discussion, particularly in the presence of a Music Director. There is simply none
allowed at the Met, and in the BSO there is very scrupulous attention paid to keeping discussion
within careful lines, avoiding identifying language which might bias members of the panel
towards a particular, known candidate. However, there are other reasons that discussion can
get out of hand- for instance- explaining to the uninitiated the virtues or weaknesses of
particular schools of playing- either specific conservatories or national schools of playing. The
playing itself should show the merits or faults of the player. Ears- not eyes. Sound, not
resumes. Talent, then, over time, will out.

6. Finally, we may have arrived at a moment where it is necessary to propose that all orchestras
maintain the screen through the entirety of an audition. That is not to say that I feel that
allowing BSO players to opt to come out from behind the screen has tilted auditions in Boston. I
have remained behind the screen in every audition, but don’t feel in any way that the final
choices have been compromised by our process. I have agreed with all of the final round
contestant pools, and virtually every hire in Boston, and I have participated in, of course,
predominantly wind auditions, but brass and string as well. That said, we must avoid the
slightest appearance of impropriety.

I am terribly worried that the public debate will begin to exert irresistible pressure on employers in our field to guarantee outcomes that are at odds with hiring the most artistically qualified.

Furthermore, it has been a very important part of my career to train young musicians. I have
never seen the level of despair present in the conservatory and university trained population.

They feel, justifiably, that they have never had less of a chance to be heard fairly. That is a
cancer for the orchestral world. We are already facing great financial trials and decreasing
number of jobs that pay a middle class living with solid benefits and pensions. How can we get
in a pulpit about the nobility of our artistic strivings when we are showing less than full
sympathy and due consideration to the youngest and least experienced amongst us? This letter
may raise the hackles of hard-pressed orchestras and orchestra musicians. They may protest
that they are taking every effort, already, in a period where both time and money are
challenged. I feel that it is the appropriate time for me to raise it. We may only be seeing the
tip of the iceberg when it comes to litigation against our employers, and that is a terrible waste
of our industry’s resources.

John Ferrillo
Principal Oboe, Boston Symphony
Faculty, New England Conservatory, Boston University


  • Guest says:

    I’ve assisted with orchestral auditions in the past, and every time, they were screened.
    Ny job was to ensure that the candidates did not identify themselves, not did the panel know the names of the candidates prior to winning the audition.
    Every time, the playing spoke for itself, and we were not left with questions of favoritism or sexism. (I even had a female candidate take off her heels so she would not give herself away)

    Unscreened auditions are a recipe for disaster

  • Wai Kit leung says:

    Wonderfully put, Mr. Ferillo.

    In the US oboe world, it is often with whom you study that wins you the job. That has to change.

  • Bach says:

    Interesting- BSO is perhaps the most notorious orchestra for not having ‘open’ auditions. From the resume rounds to live rounds, it is common knowledge in the music world that you pretty much don’t stand any chance if you don’t have inside connections.

    • Bob says:

      I disagree. At age 19, I came very close to being offered the Associate Principal Horn chair of the Boston Symphony. I didn’t know anyone there.

    • Todd says:

      Completely true. It is well known in the double bass world that you need not apply if you didn’t study in Boston with one of maybe 3 teachers. Sure you can get an invite but you won’t be listened to objectively if you aren’t an insider. Fact.

    • CPE Bach says:

      I disagree as well. As stated in the article you only need one vote to advance the CD round which anyone can participate in. That seems very open to me. If you can’t get one vote then by presenting the best recording you can get out of yourself, i doubt you will do better when you need a lot of votes to advance in a live round. What you call common knowledge can also be called conspiracy theories, usually spread by people who didn’t do well in those auditions. I joined the BSO with absolutely zero connections and many others did as well.

      • Roger Kaza says:

        Recordings are very problematic. They assume everyone is a qualified recording engineer as well as player. Since they are not, the acoustical and technical quality varies wildly. And of course some players will edit their audition to perfection, whereas others will send in a reasonable facsimile of a strong live audition. It’s difficult to compare the two. The only solution would be recorded “live” (one shot) auditions in designated acoustically identical settings, submitted by a participating studio or organization. This could be done, but would require teamwork and cooperation between orchestras across the US that historically has been lacking.

      • David says:

        “As stated in the article you only need one vote to advance the CD round which anyone can participate in. That seems very open to me.”
        –As someone in an ICSOM orchestra who regularly plays with most of the top 5 orchestras, and I and many of my colleagues have routinely had our resumes rejected from live BSO auditions. It is even more discouraging when you find out some kid from NEC or Curtis got the live invite. Asking for a CD from experienced / qualified candidates seems like a convenient way for appearing like the audition is “open” when it is not.

        “What you call common knowledge can also be called conspiracy theories, usually spread by people who didn’t do well in those auditions.”
        –You have a point here – when you reject so many people in the resume round, those people “did not do well” in the audition.

        “I joined the BSO with absolutely zero connections and many others did as well.”
        –Did you join recently?

  • Terence says:

    “I am terribly worried that the public debate will begin to exert irresistible pressure on employers in our field to guarantee outcomes that are at odds with hiring the most artistically qualified.”

    A delicate way of saying that quotas from particular ethnic or or social groups will become standard in order to avoid litigation.

    Interestingly, Harvard University is in court for doing just that. However they try and spin it, they are discriminating against Asian applicants to favour Black applicants.

    The outcome of this case may however protect orchestras against forced quotas. One can only hope so.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    That is quite a testimony coming from someone in such a respected position with a solid reputation. I agree that there seems to be a number of star players who are able to create their own personal auditions for the various positions that they may be interested in. But I don’t think the current system will change much due to some of the elements (primarily the number of candidates) that Mr Ferrillo mentions. But I give him credit for calling out the present method of doing things.

  • Chris says:

    Responsible and well thought out thoughts from Mr. Ferrillo.

    But I don’t think conservatories should graduate students that play “orchestra instruments” anymore . There are no jobs and looking out at the cruel reality of clawing for the scraps left… it just all is starting to create a worse and worse moral stink.

    The orchestra scene, due to financial hardship, has become a mostly polar world where everyone except those in about 7 major orchestras are musical “Grunts”, and the people who are in major orchestra having to put up with the subdued envy on the lower classes.

    How degrading to be a young musician these days. Thank god I’m not one.

    There are… simply…. just no orchestra jobs left.

    • Recent Grad says:

      I graduated from a conservatory in an “orchestral instrument”, but I had so many other opportunities around that which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I had the chance to study abroad and interact with classical musicians in other countries. I interned at many of the local music organizations. I performed in places that I had only dreamed of. I studied composers, and noticed that some of the issues they had faced back then mirror society today. I can take these opportunities and studies and reflect upon how to make music relevant in today’s society.

      Most of my classmates, while we dreamed of winning a job when we started, we all found our various niches as we went through, and explored parts of music we never knew existed. We were point blank told that unless we had a flawless audition and went 9 hours a day in a practice room, none of us were going to win the big jobs. And yet, we returned to the practice rooms the next morning for long tones and to search for meaning in sound.

    • Classical music is un-American says:

      Everything I’ve ever experienced about the classical music world is sordid. People engage in intense competition to make increasingly lifeless music that mostly signifies status and wealth – but which has fewer and fewer real listeners as performance practice has become more standardized and predictable. What you end up with is a lot of broken people filled with anger and despair.

    • Recent grad says:

      As a recent graduate currently taking auditions (have gotten very close in a few recently), I really don’t think this is true. While the endless cycle of taking auditions until one gets a job is frustrating, in the past year alone there have been 8 auditions in quite well-paying full time orchestras on my instrument. Most of the adept young players I have met at these auditions do go on get jobs, despite it taking some time. I agree there are far more music students than available jobs, and music shools should not give so many false hopes, but those that put in the work and achieve a very high level of playing do generally succeed eventually.

      At the same time, it’s hard to say that there should be less music schools and they should accept less students across the board. I, for example, did my undergrad at a less prestigious school, and started my studies from a relatively low level in comparison to some of the kids I see now. After seeing where I needed to be to get a job, however, I’ve made great strides since. I’ve known many others who have done the same. In addition any others who do not get orchestral positions go on to do all sorts of wonderful things in music. I do think most teachers ought to make the reality of the level it takes in order to win orchestral positions more apparent early on.

      • Anon says:

        Yep. And music schools should stop selling the fantasy of getting an orch. job as a reasonable job prospect in order to attract students and tuition money. There has got to be a reality check imposed at some point on music students who are seriously striving for an orchestral career. It’s a limited possibility.

        To make a blunt comparison, some prisons offer programs to young offenders whereby they can visit the prison, listen to the prisoners’ stories and witness 1st hand the drawbacks of commiting a crime.

        There should be something like this for aspiring orchestral players. They need to understand the reality of auditions, who they’re up against, what it takes to be a tenured player and the likelihood that they will probably not be landing a full time orch. job. That’s the reality.

      • Guest2 says:

        You present yourself a “recent graduate”
        I like your positivity and I think this is a quality you should never lose but it is false that most great players win a job. Not many people stick with the audition process (notice MOST but not people at auditions ARE young) and many people even if they are great eventually do something else because well they want to make more money. I do agree if a musician is open minded they can make enough money to live outside of playing in an orchestra. A lot of people eventually want to make more money though.

        I am speaking as someone that had a decent orch job but quit. I have done the audition thing for a while. This is a very tough profession and I don’t think that should be watered down. A positive mindset is important.

        What I will say is I do believe musicians are generally brilliant individuals to the point where many that end up doing something else are able to do so because they apply their work ethic, dedication and motivation towards this something else. Many even continue to gig.

        I don’t believe schooling or a career in music is a waste. Most people aren’t able to become some great at one thing and this in itself teaches one a lot.

        Best to all of you

        • David Rohde says:

          I think you have to make a distinction between finding other work in music and going into another field entirely. I took Recent Grad to mean that those who do not win an orchestra job can find other performance opportunities if they’re properly inclined. He or she may obviously have been referring to teaching as well, but in any case I can confirm that this kind of outlook is at least somewhat warranted.

          In the US mid-Atlantic states where I am, there are a number of highly qualified people who happily gig from jazz to theater to admittedly mid-range classical groups, and I’m not just talking about the phenomenon of “reed doublers” in pit orchestras. One data point I like to deliver is that in the last 15 years or so, a lot of the new Broadway scores that have been orchestrated under budget constraints to include 6-12 musicians rather than 15-25 have somehow found room for a cello. Theater composers and orchestrators just like the sound and, yeah, technology can take over from there to create the right balance. When these shows (if successful) are inevitably released nationally for license to regional and community theaters, the possibilities open up for those who are open-minded enough, even among the surplus of string players.

          Perhaps a distinction you were making between making “some money” (presumably in music without employment in an orchestra) and “more money” (presumably in another field) means you get all this. But then I also want to push back a little on your observation that simply by virtue of having made it through conservatory, everyone is naturally equipped to apply themselves in unrelated fields. In some ways that’s true but, in my opinion, in other ways it’s very much not true. I mean, tell that to the annual Heifetz Institute in Virginia, where they take primarily string players and immediately put them in uncomfortable positions of personal presentation, public speaking, and artistic interpretation well beyond what they may have received in their home conservatories or any other past schooling.

          I’m partially mentioning this because it’s related to what I consider a very ineffective marketing tack by a lot of classical presenters to the effect that classical music is “good for you” or “makes you smart” or stuff like that, which neither does anything to bring in the new audience nor fully discloses the possible isolating impact and limited human skillset that it leaves on some practitioners. I realize that you stated the case more narrowly than this – simply that if you made it through conservatory you must have quite a work ethic that you could apply elsewhere – but I just find that this cliche needs some bursting from time to time.

          • Sam says:

            I dont disagree with your points. I was just trying to Express that not every great player will be able to win a job. When I was in conservatory I did feel like most were really smart. I know several that changed careers successfully. Some had to go back to school some not. I wasnt trying to imply a conservatory prepares you for a career in engineering etc. I do think developing the focus to spend several hours in a practice room can translate. I personally have been thinking of changing professions and have spoken to conservatory friends of mine that have already done this and they have a similar outlook. I would say a downfall as a musician is when you do something like this from such a young age and go to college for it etc. one can easily convince themselves they can’t do something else. I do think conservatories should be more balanced.

  • Frederic Langbein says:

    Well said. Identity politics has poisoned the world of classical music. The diversocrats will soon demand that more women and minority groups win orchestra positions independently of their qualifications or abilities. It’s a cancer indeed.

    • Doug says:

      Feel the wrath of the leftist rage mob in your downvotes. These simple minded sheep pine for the days of the Maoist Cultural Revolution any d consider classical music one of the Four Olds.

  • Spenser says:

    Bravo. Simply, Bravo.

  • Michael Schneider says:

    Does he plan to address the drastically different pay between him and the flutist? I agree, auditions should be blind. The focus of the lawsuit is pay equality between equally skilled musicians. By his own definition, they are equals- why aren’t they paid like equals?

    • MacroV says:

      He has talked about this elsewhere. He has made clear he considers Elizabeth Rowe his full equal and appears to have no objection to her being paid the same. But that it’s not his place to tell BSO management what it should be paying another player.

  • Michael Schneider says:

    Does he plan to address the focus of the lawsuit, the difference in pay? I agree, auditions should be blind and impartial. By his own definition, the fultist and him are equals – why aren’t they being paid equally?

  • Zacharias Galaviz Guerra says:

    I sincerely hope that the disgruntled public will be able to accept this delineation of the selection process. John is right, naturally; meritocracy alone must decide in the coveted positions of our orchestras (I do believe that many auditions could benefit by being run without a screen, obviously in the case of conductors, for example. Concertmaster and section leads as well).

    Also, the aforementioned public must be able to accept that meritocracy and “equality of opportunity” does not guarantee “equality of outcome”. Results skew, and the public needs to stop impetuously targeting orchestra management for imbalances leaning toward one group or another. It happens, and as John says, most are doing everything they can to preserve the integrity of our institutions, against all odds.

    Bravo, Mr. Ferrillo. We’re with you.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    In leadership roles compensation is typically negotiated and based largely on experience. This oboe player left the Met for Boston. I would be curious if the flute player in question were male and not female would he be able to make the same case for salary equality? If Yes, then this is not about sexism after all; if No then it is, but another dimension of sexism is added— in which case only females could pursue salary equality.

  • Guest says:

    “I am terribly worried that the public debate will begin to exert irresistible pressure on employers in our field to guarantee outcomes that are at odds with hiring the most artistically qualified” = “all lives matter”

  • If John Ferrillo believes that US orchestra auditions are tainted with some sort of PC bias, he should supply some proof. He provides no documentation whatsoever for such a serious charge, mostly likely because it is simply not happening, or only so rarely that it does not even come close to defining a pattern.

    In any case, I’m inclined to believe that is not what he meant, and that his comment has been misunderstood.

  • James E Forrest says:

    Admirable statement. How could one disagree with the spirit and content of this . . . ?

  • Ben says:

    The Boston Symphony notoriously left multiple cello openings unfilled for maybe a decade in recent years. Auditions regularly result in a “no-hire” throughout other lesser full-time orchestras, and even ROPA orchestras.

    The resulting waste of time and resources is staggering, and assures that only candidates with substantial means can really participate. This is the biggest shame of the audition process and the first reform that should be taken.

    • TimUnpop says:

      You are forgetting the fact that the musicians taking the auditions are not robots. They are human and make mistakes. Sometimes they don’t play their best. Just because you have qualified players taking the audition doesn’t mean that they will demonstrate their playing well on that day in that moment. Sometimes, unfortunately, lots of people don’t play their best and the panel has no choice but to not hire anyone. The panel can’t hire someone based on how they “usually” play. Only on how they play in that moment. If no one plays up to the standard the orchestra wants ON THAT DAY….no hire.

      • Bill says:

        Well, they COULD choose to follow the Met a little more closely — the Met has a policy that they will always hire someone at the end of the audition.

        • Anon says:

          Yes, but they have a closely scrutinized trial period in the orch. for the winners of those auditions. I can think of a couple of top players who didn’t pass. I, for one, would like to know more about how the trial works.

  • DAVID says:

    The idea that orchestral auditions are thoroughly rational processes is in my opinion an illusion; they are of course rational in part as there are unmistakable criteria (such as rhythm, intonation, technical proficiency and even style) from which one can somewhat objectively judge, but they are also extremely subjective processes through which very capable candidates can easily be eliminated because something in their playing did not please the jury. Some candidates who audition well may not be necessarily the best players, as the effects of nervousness and stress can be devastating and ruin the performance of extremely talented players, whereas those who have nerves of steel (and whose playing often tends to be more conventional) can more easily withstand such pressure and hence win the job, though they may not necessarily be the most interesting as musicians. I therefore agree with Mr. Ferrillo that candidates who show some weakness should still be given a chance to advance to the next round if certain qualities are detected in their playing — unfortunately there are audition judges who will use the slightest mistake as an excuse to disqualify a candidate, which in my opinion is plain silly, as a good judge can always detect the true caliber of a candidate who happens to have a bad day. The idea that auditions should be based on meritocracy is a laudable one, but reality rarely matches that ideal. Getting tenure is often an exercise in likeability; orchestras are profoundly political, often toxic entities in which simply being nice and not rocking the boat can go a long way and in which strong personalities are rarely encouraged, as the ones who have the power to grant tenure often derive great satisfaction from having such power and expect a good amount of deference from those whose fate hangs literally in their hands, as the field is so saturated with extremely talented and perfectly qualified players that the prospect of getting back to square one — having to start all over and having to compete with hundreds of applicants — can be rather daunting. The idea that logic rules auditions is a profoundly exaggerated one; getting in and getting tenure are ultimately dependent on rather subjective forces, as there is always an element of subjectivity in musical judgment, since it is not an objective science. One has to play well to win a job, but playing well is never a guarantee of winning one.

  • Anon says:

    Excellent statement by Mr. Ferrillo. Many lesser orchs. around the world look to organizations like the BSO for their own audition guidelines, so this is incredibly helpful.

    I was esp. interested in his comment about possibly moving towards keeping the screen up for all rounds, as the MET does. I’ve heard this topic hotly debated. There are those (generally string players, I believe) who argue that it’s important to be able to SEE the players actually play in the last round. I’m curious how string players feel about an all screened audition.

    Also, with an all screened audition, how does an orch. make allowances for candidates who are already in the orch. or perhaps subbing in the position they are auditioning for? Are they invited into a later round automatically or do they start from scratch with a “blind” 1st round audition with everyone else?

    Lastly, if it’s an all-screened audition, and the winner is determined before the committee knows their identity, what kind of trial system for this player should be in place?

    Should there be one finalist chosen for trial or more than one? And for UK musicians, where this trial system seems to be prevalent, how does the orchestra vote on players who’ve done a trial if the original audition committee is not all present during the concerts where they’ve done their trial.

    Thank you for any enlightenment!

  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    It was not my intention to enter into this discussion but something jumped out and it is crucial to the debate. The article is well written and lays out Mr. Ferrilo’s position clearly, but when he writes that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has its audition and the music director is not present, it got me to wondering what the point of having a music director is?

    In fact, that term is only used one more time in the article. When I began in the profession, it was the music director who decided the makeup of the members of the orchestra. After forty years of running ensembles, there has been a remarkable shift, to the point where the members of the orchestras now have the authority to determine who will be in the group.

    Isn’t the idea that the music director is the one hired to shape the orchestral personality and sound of the ensemble? Has our role now been diminished to simply leading more concerts than any other conductor during the season and to work with what we are given rather than actively seeking a truly individual profile for our orchestras? I am not speaking of the repertoire but rather the collective sonority.

    If we apply this train of thought to the audition itself, the question is: who hires the musicians? That should be the crux of the entire discussion.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That’s a crucial point, Leonard, but it’s the tenor of the times. The manager of a football club does not get much say in the players that are bought by the club. It’s the Moneyball guys who make the call.

      • Leonard Slatkin says:

        But it is not the other members of the football club who hire or audition the potential players for the team. If that were the case in the orchestral world, the new ladies and gentlemen would be hired by the board. But I do agree that times have changed, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          That’s true… although they can make life intolerable for new hires. In any event, some rethinking is required and I’m glad that John Ferrillo has set the ball rolling.

          • David Rohde says:

            I believe that Maestro Slatkin’s initial observation, even though it seems historical, has even deeper meaning than may appear at first. I want to emphasize that I’m talking strictly from an American standpoint, and I’m partially analogizing symphony orchestras to very different sorts of enterprises, both for-profit and non-profit. Nevertheless, speaking from a standpoint of both organizational dynamics and microeconomics, it is a fact that an increase in size of internal decision-making bodies tends to correlate with a DECREASE in that institution’s economic viability and/or social relevance. Or, stated more simply: There is no such thing as a perfect audition system, even if you should try to come up with a very good one. Personally I cannot wrap my head around the idea of screened auditions from start to finish of the process. This is still a) a job environment, and b) a part of showbiz.

            If much of this is meant for legal protection, then I’d ask people to consider why it is (as often aired here) that American media coverage about this industry now seems so much more about the disputes and problems and so much less about the music. Fundamentally we are talking about a supply/demand imbalance with almost the entire discussion here looking for a precise mechanism to ration the supply-side only. No, of course I cannot create a second Boston Symphony Orchestra with more chairs, but more orchestras with more general prestige and cultural reach (rather than the reverse of all of those) would inevitably ameliorate this problem of talent allocation to some extent. There are also some excellent comments here that go to a broader, more optimistic discussion of where to take the question of young talents on string, woodwind and brass instruments. For example, I like what “Recent Grad” has to say in a couple of comments below. Thanks.

      • Anon says:

        No one apparently saw what I wrote below. With all due respect, you’re riffing on something that Mr. Ferrillo did not say.

        Mr Ferrillo did not say that the MD is not present at MET auditions, he said that there is no discussion of the candidates at MET auditions. Big difference!

    • Anon says:

      Thank you, Maestro, for weighing in. Your perspective is greatly valued in this discussion.

      Your point is well taken. It does seem that modern orchs. have done an about face from the days when Music Directors could appoint players at will.

      But one clarification: I do not see where Mr. Ferrillo says that the Music Director is not present at MET auditions. That would be highly unusual. I believe he’s saying that discussion of the candidates (which would be in the presence of the MD) is not allowed at MET auditions.

      “. A critical element in auditions is closely
      regulating discussion, particularly in the presence of a Music Director. There is simply none
      allowed at the Met. . .”

      It’s the discussion which is not allowed not the Music Director as I read it.

      Discussion about players in the presence of the MD can indeed be a delicate situation, so I understand this completely. But I’m sure we all agree with you, Maestro, that the Music DIrector must be present and participatory in the selection of all new players.

  • Jim G. says:

    I’ve been a tenured musician in three ICSOM orchestras as well as overseas in Europe and feel that the most fair way to hold an audition has nothing to do with screened vs. unscreened. Audition committees should be much bigger than the typical 7-10 musicians. Too often, a couple of “bad apples” sabotage the entire audition process. I’ve seen it happen from both sides of the screen where one or two people have a particular agenda, or someone in particular in mind for the job. Then, during the audition that person “accidentally” gets cut from behind the screen, so they pressure the rest of the committee to have a no-hire so they can start over, or worse, simply “appoint” someone without a proper audition. Another bad scenario is when the percentage of YES votes needed is so high that, even if the majority on the committee wants a candidate, a couple people can prevent that person from being hired. The best solution (albeit imperfect) is to look to the European model whereby a large number of musicians (sometimes the entire orchestra) attends the audition and votes. That is closer to a true democracy. This way, whether the screen is up or down, at least a small handful of musicians not interested in a fair audition will be outnumbered by all the other people voting. If you have 50-100 people voting, the issue of screened vs. unscreened goes away quickly. The likelihood of bias or other types of weirdness increases greatly when you put such an important decision in the hands of only a very small number of committee members. And I think we all know committee members who love playing God. That’s where problems arise. Democracy, people!

    • Anon says:

      OK, our orch. just started doing this – big audition committee, like 25 people from the orch.

      Here’s the problem I am seeing now: we chose 3 finalists for a trial – the top voted candidates by this big committee. Now we have to vote for the best of the 3. Each trial candidate is doing 2 or 3 programs. Not everyone on the committee plays all of these programs. There are string rotations, wind changes, illnesses, etc.

      How can the same 25 people vote fairly in this 2nd phase of the audition when none of them were there for every finalist’s trial?

      • JOSHG says:

        More to the point, how can 25 people determine how a finalist plays in a trial situation, even if they are all present? With that many committee members, you’re necessarily going to have all or most of the instrument families represented. How is the 3rd stand first violinist going to know how well a bass player plays on the other side of the stage? Is a trombonist really in the position to compare three different second oboists who only play during tuttis? When working, most musicians are too busy playing to be paying attention to every thing a trial candidate does.
        Let’s face it, the only people really qualified to judge how a wind player fits in are those sitting immediately around him/her. The person best suited to judge an orchestral cellist is that person’s stand partner. Thus, the trial period creates two scenarios: 1)the committee defers to those seated in the immediate vicinity of the candidate, thereby undermining the democratic basis of the process (“one person one vote”), or 2)people make their decision based on non-musical impressions, such as water cooler small talk. The trial is therefore even more prone to bias than an unscreened audition round.
        One more finer point: one of those 25 people is going to be the conductor. How easy is it to schedule 2 or 3 trials on different programs that all fit the conductor’s schedule for the remainder of the season? This is how the process gets dragged out. As a reward for enduring through all rounds of a grueling audition, winning candidates have to wait additional weeks or even months before playing or hearing anything definite. During this time people can call their friends, gossip, and even campaign for or against individuals. All the while, the longer time span makes it more difficult to remember and contrast different players.

        In my opinion, trial rounds should only be used as a confirmation process, not an extension of the competition. Offer multiple candidates trials only as a last resort, assuming that the audition – as arbitrary as the process is – doesn’t determine one clear winner.

        • Anon says:

          Very well stated, JoshG. Everything you’ve said makes sense. It just doesn’t work offering trials to more than 1 candidate at a time.

          Trials should, indeed, be used as a confirmation process for one candidate at a time, not 3. This is how it’s done in most US orchs, in Berlin, Vienna and probably many other orchs.

          I’ve tried to keep an open mind on this because I was under the impression that UK orchs run trials for several players for the same position simultaneously and I wanted to give that system a chance. But I have no idea how they can arrive at a fair vote, esp. with a large committee.

    • anon says:

      This comment describes my orchestra so well. The audition committees are too small to override the likely 2-3 people on the committee who have gotten their job 40 years ago when standards were different, and who have unfortunately suffered hearing loss from the years on the job, and whose votes often are so bizarre voting for truly for some of the least qualified candidates, then the 2-3 committee members who have deep seated psychological issues of seeking power, playing God, as you said, pushing their own agenda, and the 2-3 committee members who are people pleasers, voting in a way to please their colleagues and superiors. Add to this the many managerial improprieties that happen along the process…

      Also, the final votes often happen when the committees are exhausted from hearing a very large number of candidates play the same excerpts over and over, and even with good ears and best intentions, after that many hours, one will vote for that which is externally the best, meaning perfection in intonation, rhythm etc, and one will often not be so sensitive to perceive the content behind the delivery. This is where we shoot ourselves in the foot, as we most often hire, people who sound ‘strong’, ‘solid’ and with nerves of steel at the expense of candidates who may not be as picture perfect but who may be able to help deliver moments of high art on stage to the audience.

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    I participated in an audition once…. Every committee member except one voted in favor of the obvious best candidate. The one voting against voted that way because of her personal dislike for the player. The conductor took the committee member’s side so the player was not hired. Merit should always be the main criteria but issues of personality and collegiality should also be weighed – therefore, the trial period of an entire season should be mandatory.

  • Michael says:

    Let’s just straighten this all out, once and for all.
    All principal players negotiate their own overscale salary package regardless of gender, however it is obvious that if a candidate is wanted by a committee and a music director, and that player has years of principal experience, as well, he or she will be able to command a better package of dollars and or more weeks off. This the business we have chosen!

    • Frederic Langbein says:

      Isn’t this the same in every profession? Also, there are certainly fewer qualified oboists than are flautists—music school admission officers can attest to that. It’s the nature of the job market. I’m all for equality of opportunity. We just need to live with the fact that equality of opportunity doesn’t guarantee equality of outcome.

  • Mike says:

    Players with jobs in ‘major’ orchestras are customarily invited directly to the finals (which are often unscreened) when they audition somewhere else. I’m curious if Mr Ferrillo availed himself of that opportunity or showed up to the ‘cattle call’ (open audition) when he auditioned for the BSO.

    I’ve been in two orchestras now where I have observed players fail in the open audition, then, through connections, get an invite to the final, where they went on to ‘win’ a principal position.

    Screens throughout the process would help, but not entirely eliminate favoritism. I’ve also been privy to some candidates signaling their identity to audition committee members from behind the screen. The process is only as fair as those participating.

  • John Ferrillo says:

    I am glad to see such a nuanced discussion of these issues. `Hello there, Maestro Slatkin! If I could just interject on a couple points. I’m sorry if my comments suggested that the MD is not involved in our process in Boston. The maestro must be present from the first rounds of the finals, which are screened. After that, members of the panel are allowed to sit on the other side of the screen, but not to identify the candidate to those remaining behind the screen. In Boston, the final decision in both the hiring and in granting tenure are the maestro’s. At the Met, the maestro votes as any other committee member during the audition, but the final tenure decision is solely the maestro’s.

    For both my first position as second oboe in San Francisco and the Principal oboe position at the Met, I was hired using strictly screened procedures (outside of the final round in SF). In Boston, my audition was part of a guest appearance week- it involved playing within the orchestra and chamber music. I would never pretend that that was as grueling an experience as a general audition, nor that it is the best way for an orchestra to audition. My audition and subsequent hiring followed the failure to hire from a general audition and subsequent trials of numerous guests. Forgive me- I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite. I would have been a fool not to seize the opportunity to be a member of such a wonderful orchestra. It was the perfect complement to my previous wonderful experience playing opera. Also Boston was home to me as a youngster, along with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

    For 17 years in Boston, however, there has been a reformed system in which there are not auditions through guest appearances and solo auditions. When the orchestra committee was negotiating these new rules shortly after I arrived, I submitted a description of the process used by the Met. As I said in my column, the process is not identical to the Met’s, but is much more like it than it was, and has worked very beautifully. As a juror on panels, I have never been part of a no hire decision, but I do know that these things have occurred in the BSO. It is, however, far less frequent an occurrence than it used to be.

    • Anon says:

      Thank you for these additional insights, Mr. Ferrillo. I am puzzled by one description you give. I’m hoping that you or maybe even another reader might explain it to me.

      You say “The maestro must be present from the first rounds of the finals, which are screened. After that, members of the panel are allowed to sit on the other side of the screen, but not to identify the candidate to those remaining behind the screen.”

      Forgive me, but I do not understand this. Who is remaining behind the screen after the 1st round?

      I am with a much lesser orch. and we look to the big orchs. like BSO to help determine our own audition procedures so I want to understand this clearly.

      From your description, It sounds like BSO 1st rounds are screened, and that 2nd rounds are unscreened, since the panel is sitting on the same side of the screen as the candidates.

      I don’t understand who would still behind the screen in the 2nd round.

      Can you explain this, please? Thank you!

      • Roger Kaza says:

        No, he’s saying the entire audition is screened for the player, who is announced by number, but that at a certain point, such as finals, committee members are allowed to see the player if they so choose. Those who do not wish to can remain behind the screen.

      • John Ferrillo says:

        Everyone is behind the screen until at least the 2nd round of the finals- that is to say, what would be at least the 4th round of the audition (1st prelim, 2nd semis, 3d finals- which could be followed by 2 more “super finals”). After that, musicians may opt to sit on the other side of the screen, although a number of us remain for the entire process. Is that clearer?

        • Anon says:

          Excellent! That clarifies it. I understand now. Thanks so much for explaining. We are always looking to improve audition procedures in my orch. and I wanted to be able to explain this to my colleagues as an option, a precedent by a major orch. Thank you for clarifying, and bravisimo for speaking out on this subject!

  • Roger Kaza says:

    I concur with my distinguished colleague’s comments. I might add it really is not impossible to invite *everyone* who applies to the audition. For example, several years ago we had a couple horn vacancies in our orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony. There were 250 applicants, and we invited all of them to the live audition with no prescreening. One thing to note is that you can always count on a huge no-show factor. So “only” 125 showed up, but 25 of those had strong credentials and were advanced to the semifinal round in order to entice them to show up. Thus we had 100 players to hear in prelims over three days. It’s really not that hard to do if you allot enough time. We use the LA Phil’s “silent vote” system to decide during the audition whether or not to continue listening, or cut the player off after several telling excerpts. It’s usually quite obvious who is in the running and who isn’t, and it’s counterproductive to spend the same amount of time on both categories of players. So an accomplished player may get a 15 minute prelim audition with multiple retakes to try out suggestions from the committee, and a struggling, less qualified player will only get 5 minutes. But–here’s the important point–*everyone* gets their shot! No one can complain the system is rigged against them because they have no experience. It’s a level playing field.

    I agree as well with Mr. Ferrillo’s suggestion that the screen remain up to the very end, although this does make ensemble playing challenging if that is part of the audition. Yet I’ve heard of orchestras that simply add another screen onstage between the auditionee and the other players. It can be done.

    We’ve made great strides in the audition process over the last 50 years. Let’s continue to work out the last remaining kinks. If you are an auditionee, keep trying. I won a job I wanted at age 53. If you are a committee member, please keep your ears open and don’t be petty because someone does one little thing that bothers you or plays differently than you are used to hearing. Be generous. Make the list reasonable and playable. And PICK SOMEONE at every audition.

    • Bill says:

      The use of a second screen in ensemble auditions doesn’t seem to protect against the possibility of bias (conscious or otherwise) by the players assisting the candidate. I’d be quite interested in hearing more about how these auditions (chamber music, with or without screens) are done!

      • Roger Kaza says:

        I’m not sure whom you mean by “the players assisting the candidate.” Non-voting personnel, usually management, accompany the candidate to the screened area onstage. Whatever their biases, it shouldn’t show up in the vote. My proposal is for the auditionee to be shielded visually even in ensemble rounds. It’s not ideal, since musicians do use visual cues to play together, but it will still give a good idea of blend and style, which is what is being evaluated at this point in the final stages of an audition. Those who say they need to “see the player” (or see their résumé) to understand their musicianship must accept that fairness is a greater good than total information.

        • David Rohde says:

          “It’s not ideal, since musicians do use visual cues to play together …”

          I daresay.

          Roger, huge respect for you as a top horn player who I clearly engages in diverse activities to promote the cause of music. But as I went into in my main comment above, this mania to find the Nth degree of fairness not only cannot ever produce a perfectly unimpeachable process in such a subjective field, but also correlates (I’ll leave exact cause and effect out of it) with a cultural imbalance between the number of producers and consumers of classical music. Of course I realize why this is under examination now, but I’d love to see this much attention paid to how to broaden classical music’s contemporary reach beyond superficial “outreach” programs, which to me is truly the underlying issue.

    • Anon says:

      With all due respect, screening the candidates during an ensemble round is over the top, IMHO. How would you keep that policy consistant thruout auditions for every position? Or is an ensemble component only important for certain instruments?

      As a Principal player, I have visions of trying to evaluate a candidate for my section with a screen between us. It sounds a little wacky.

      I’ll concede that an all screened audition as the MET does it, for solos and excerpts, might be a good idea. But I think that the test of ensemble playing can be evaluated during the musician’s probationary period with the orchestra.

  • Tamino says:

    Equality of opportunity, yes.
    Equality of outcome, no.

    That says all that needs to be said.

    If Elizabeth Rowe can prove she has not been given the same opportunities, then she should win her case. If not, then she shouldn’t.

  • Mindy says:


  • Sara M. says:

    What is with this us identity politics? Mr. Ferrillo was coming from the Met, plus he has 20yrs on Ms. Rowe who was coming from a lower -tier orchestra.

    Folks in the us are free to negotiate their own salaries/compensations/benies/etc..etc..You ‘eat watcha kill.’ That was the us way. There is no standardization etc…similar to Europe. Moreover, principal oboe, horn, concert master, are much more challenging positions to muster/master than principal flute. Should we pay the chief of general medicine at Hopkins who was recruited from East West Johnson State the same as the chief of cardiac surgery at Hopkins who has 20yrs+ experience, and was coming from Harvard?

    This identity politics lawsuit appears window dressing and DOA. The lawyers will be happy though–they’ll get their fill–us hustler styles. Perhaps, there will be a settlement, etc…however, Ms. Rowe’s reputation may be tarnished as who wants to touch a lawsuit/bad PR krptonite identity politics musician?

    1. american orchestras are dying because the us empire is dying. Hence, the lack of support other than potential old ladies leaving their estates/dinero to fund the anemic audiences

    2. ‘top tier’ us orchestras remains elitist and unless one has 50-100$ to attend (the 8-15$ tix are for students, elderly or disabled), plus parking fees etc…few normal folks can attend. Or the ‘fundraiser’ whereby it costs “only” 500$ per person to attend…..crazy. yet they still wonder why they can’t generate new classical music fans?! All the lightshows, and techno mumbo jumbo on screens or the pops playing all abt das bass, or hokey rap music arrangements is not going to do anything. It’s window dressing on a corpse.

    3. Some senior BSO mgmt made >$800K p.a. plus benies, how many are women, blacks, mexicans? Where’s the orchestra’s comment abt that? Crickets.

    4. YES!!! The ‘dirty lil’ secret in the BSO auditions is-was who you trained with, who was due, or related to. Percussion, horn, bass, etc….That’s been well known for many years and bad joke to those who really thought there would be integrity/honor in Boston’ s ‘leading’ orchestra?!

    5. The BSO rescinding Ms. Rowe’s MSM natl geopraphic PR PC appearance, is emblematic of why no one wants to hear reality. Reality is an allergy to most americans. They can look reality in the eye and deny it.

  • Anon says:

    Great points in this thread on a topic which needs to be discussed. Inequality of pay would be much less of an issue if all auditions were conducted in the way described by Mr. Ferrillo. I would like to know the percentage of positions which are won by relatively young players when the audition process is completely blind. When players are not coming from other prominent principal positions, they are not in the same position to negotiate. I am not saying that more experienced players do not win auditions, but the odds seem better for younger players who are immersed in the competitive environment of the audition circuit – and they are often not in the position to negotiate unless they are coming from a major job.

  • Bernard Phillips says:

    Bravo John Ferrillo! The most cogent argument raised in your letter is the fact that “We are already facing great financial trials and decreasing
    number of jobs that pay a middle class living with solid benefits and pensions.” Hear, hear!

  • Classical music is un-American says:

    “The situation in America is becoming IMPOSSIBLE!!” – Zubin Mehta (1998)

  • Guest says:

    I respect John Ferrillo a lot—I really do. But I want to raise a point not being addressed. Most of us in full (or part) time symphony jobs are not making that much money. In fact, we are making less and less. My salary has stayed the same for ten years.

    So for me and many others, other aspects of the work environment are what have to come together so as to make it worth doing. You are assuming that musical experience (I.e. being surrounded by the best players) is the primary thing that makes an orchestral job worth doing.

    Now, if I made the salary you do, that might be the case, and I could muster the energy to sit next to someone who is a fantastic player but a horrible person who makes my work life somewhat miserable. But I don’t. So for me and many others, the way a person sounds on their instrument isn’t the primary factor. I want to sit next to someone who is a good colleague, who engenders camaraderie, who is inspiring as a person.

    So yeah, if I know one of the three finalists is a total jerk, I don’t care how well they play. I honestly don’t. At my salary, I need to enjoy my job. Otherwise, I’ll go hate my job somewhere else and make way more money.