In Chicago Symphony, the daughter also rises

In Chicago Symphony, the daughter also rises


norman lebrecht

May 09, 2022

We reported earlier that Bea Chen, 19, has joined the violas of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Bea happens to be the daughter of the orchestra’s concertmaster, Robert Chen.

Her mother often deputises in the violin section.





  • violafan says:

    Must be nice to be born with a headstart!

    • Herr Forkenspoon says:

      That “headstart” comes with thousands of hours of practice, experience, and competent instruction.

    • SunnyEd says:

      the only ‘headstart’ she had was parents who maybe taught her how to practice, they didn’t practice for her….

      • violafan says:

        So you don’t think having a parent who is a concertmaster is an advantage? How about understanding how much $$$ needs to go into all of the lessons, youth orchestra, INSTRUMENTS etc ???

        That is most definitely a headstart. Don’t act naïve.

  • Violinist says:

    Norman where do you get your info from? Or perhaps it is a simple matter of not being able to understand ???
    Bea passed the audition fairly, it was behind the screen and her father was not present as the union rules would not allow for it.

    Secondly, “her mother often deputises in the violin section” is really a laughable comment, for she plays with the orchestra maybe once or twice a year and usually for MO (members of) events such as Christmas shows that are not even part of the subscription concerts.

    • Scott says:

      He didn’t say anything about nepotism. He just made a comment. You are reading too much into it.

    • SoulCollector says:

      The finals of symphony auditions are not behind a screen. It is very common, and very well-known, that relatives, spouses and students of symphony members are almost always chosen for the job over the many other equally, or even better, qualified players they compete against. It isn’t fair for several reasons, but it’s also how every other job works. None of that is to say the favored ones aren’t great for the job, but that’s beside the point.

      I have played many auditions in my 40+ year career. As a tenured symphony player, I have also been on many audition panels. Several times the choice of winners were outrageously unfair, and slaps in the faces of the orchestra members who spent their time and energies on the grueling process that is judging all the fine players who make it to the finals. Not to mention the finalists who actually should have received the job.

      “Union rules,” you say? No such thing when a conductor or director can walk in and over-rule. It happens more often than you’d imagine.

      No doubt this 19 year old violist is a fine player and wonderful addition to the symphony. But I can almost guarantee she wasn’t actually the very best at that final take. Great for her, and daddy, etc. Not so much for he violist who maybe earned it more that day.

      • Chicago Dog says:

        This audition was completely screened. The decision was made without any idea of the candidate’s identity.

      • Violinist says:

        It is utterly stupid to question what I wrote because I am a member of the CSO and I sat through the auditions. We have rules in place to eliminate the possibility of a family member judging and audition when their relative is a candidate. We have had two auditions this past week, viola and bass and both have been behind the screen all the way to eliminate any bs. Why? Precisely for family reasons or because regular subs were involved in the finals. Robert Chen isn’t exactly a popular figure around the symphony and the committee would gladly down vote his daughter if given a chance. The audition was as fair as it could be and the best player won. Spreading your bile based on your “experience” and assumptions when you were not there is pretty low

        • Phillipe says:

          I can understand how the orchestra feels about RC. I went to school with him. People like him can make life pretty miserable for others.

      • JJC says:

        Your comment impugns the honesty, professionalism and character of several members of the CSO. Is that what you really wish to do?

      • violist too says:

        “almost always chosen”? You can “guarantee”? I am an orchestral musician too and you just sound bitter. You don’t know ANYTHING about this situation

  • Ernie says:


  • Geigerin says:

    Your headline could have read: 19-year old Curtis student joins Chicago viola section.

    Besides being a mother who “often deputises in the violin section”, her mother’s first job upon graduating from Curtis was Assistant Concertmaster of Boston Symphony.

    Nepotism stories become rather boring when no one here actually sucks at what they do!

    Why not write an interesting story about the ultra competitive American audition system? Screens, days of prelims, semis, finals, super finals…

    • SoulCollector says:

      Although, the point of nepotism isn’t ever about whether or not one sucks at their skill.

      But yes, it would be much more interesting to read about the audition process, American or other.

  • Fenway says:

    What a joke. I thought the cso had a fair audition process. Guess not. Maybe Robert Chen’s granddad is CEO of diversity and affirmative action at the cso.

    • Sashimi says:

      The only joke here is you with your pitiful comments about what YOU thought. The entire audition including the final was screened and Robert was not present as per union and orchestra rules he would not be allowed to judge. Bea Chen won this audition fair and square by simply being the best and from the seven finalists, she was the only who got the required amount of votes to be hired directly. However there was another candidate who received a split vote (5 out of 9 which is one too few to be hired directly), and this candidate was invited for a trial. If this candidate passes the trial successfully, she will be offered a full time position in the orchestra just like Bea. Now will it be too much of a bummer for you that this other candidate is African American? Will it be even a bigger bummer to tell you that 3 of the 7 finalists were African American??? [redacted: abuse]

      • zayin says:

        You are terribly indiscrete and have a terrible disposition to boot (I mean, to be redacted for “abuse” on this site really takes a lot!), how is your future African-American colleague going to feel sitting there to be judged by all audience members who read your post, staring at her?

        I thought Chicago was a collegial place, not this toxic space of abuse.

        • Chicagorat says:

          You seem to be a very gentle soul, thinking that Chicago is not a toxic space of abuse. Think again: the place is run by the Godfather and his Italian circle of trust.

          Like a real Godfather, Muti is all about power and power trips. Think of the principal oboe audition, when Muti overruled the orchestra committee and made them vote for the pupil of his Philly friend, Richard Woodhams.

          But most of all, just think of Muti himself and the standards of conduct he has normalized in Chicago as the Bill Clinton of classical music, with the acquiescence and sometimes the cheering of the administration and the orchestra, who thought (wrongly) that keeping him would help them sell a few more tickets. They are now faced by regularly half empty halls and a shattered brand.

          The reference to African-Americans musicians, completely uncalled for, is another genuine glimpse into the culture of the orchestra. We don’t need to read the abuse to easily figure out what it is about.

          • Max Raimi says:

            All da capo
            No fine

          • Midwestern Violin says:

            Muti has already identified the viola seat to be downgraded to make room for his concermaster’s daughter …. ouch!

        • Archie says:

          I’m sorry I’m perhaps missing something in your comment, but why should the audience be staring at or judging her? If we want diverse orchestras we should be looking at everyone the same way, shouldn’t we?

          If anything, it’s Fenway’s comment that’s nasty and toxic because it’s based on his/her unfounded speculation that not only the audition wasn’t fair but it wasn’t diverse. According to what Sashimi says we should be seeing a first African American string player in the CSO soon, plus there were two others who had a shot at a CSO job? All thanks to the fact that audition was screened? I’d say CSO obviously did something right and I actually feel with Sashimi why he/she was so angry at Fenway’s comment.

      • Phantom of the Opera says:

        How can you possibly share these private details from the audition? Isn’t this supposed to be strictly confidential?

  • MusicBear88 says:

    The violist Mary Ferrillo’s bio on the Boston Symphony website doesn’t mention that her father is John Ferrillo, the principal oboist, either. Why detract from the considerable merits needed to win an audition in a top orchestra by suggesting that something nefarious was at play in getting them hired? Children in musical families are more likely to have an upbringing that is conducive to them having musical careers.

    • SoulCollector says:

      When the situation is nefarious, that doesn’t mean that the winners aren’t excellent. What it does mean, though, is that the player who was even more excellent at the audition didn’t get a fair shake.

      Not saying that happened in Mary’s case. Just saying it’s reasonable to question when relatives, spouses and students win over everyone else.

  • Prof says:

    In many American orchestras, it’s always seemed amazing to me how after a blind audition, someone’s kid always gets the job.

    • SoulCollector says:

      Yes. Someone’s kid, spouse or student. It’s real. But not just American orchestras.

    • Max Raimi says:

      I am “someone’s kid”. We all are. But neither of my parents was a musician, let alone connected with the Chicago Symphony. And yet somehow, I won a job there. Ms Chen will be my only colleague in the viola section with a family connection to the orchestra. This comment is utter nonsense, I’m afraid.

      • Midwestern Violin says:

        Why for a long time Muti didn’t want you to play?

        He wasn’t as excited about your playing as he is about other “things” happening in his Chicago life.

        • Max Raimi says:

          “Why for a long time Muti didn’t want you to play?” What on earth are you talking about?

  • Bone says:

    So heartwarming to read a story like this.
    Especially about a viola player.

  • fflambeau says:

    If she’s good, who cares who her dad is?

    • SoulCollector says:

      Who cares? Maybe the other violists who auditioned.

      • Bill says:

        If they are good enough to win in Chicago, they are good enough to win other plum jobs. Besides, just because you played the best audition today doesn’t mean you are necessarily the best candidate for the job. It just means you played the best audition today.

  • MacroV says:

    As long as they ran an open and behind-the-screen audition where everyone competed on the same basis, good for her.

    • Midwestern Violin says:

      But they are not. There are all sorts of signs and codes they can make to signal who is playing at a given moment. Do I really have to spell it out for you all?

      • Archie says:

        You sound like conspiracy theorist, took some lessons with Trump, didn’t you? I’m stunned how people keep bringing up the nepotism but somehow no one seems to think it could also be the other way around. One of the comments above clearly stated that Chen is not well liked by the orchestra, what if the audition wasn’t screened and the committee had a chance to vote against her just to spite Chen? That would be fair? I’ve worked in multiple environments and in none of them were the colleagues supportive of hiring family members, quite the opposite in fact. I highly doubt that the CSO is an exception

  • chet says:

    Seems that Chicago is run like the mafia — or the Vienna Philharmonic — where jobs are handed down generation to generation.

    Did she win the audition fair and square? Who knows, at Chicago, “We’re gonna make offers you can’t review.” ; )

    • Chicagorat says:

      Chicago is run by Muti and his Italian circle.

      I can’t wait for the clean up, which is rapidly approaching. It’s not coming fast enough.

    • Andrew says:

      There is an indispensable book about the Daley machine in Chicago, entitled “We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent.” Just sayin.

      • Max Raimi says:

        You have offered not a shred of evidence that the audition was biased. I am terribly sorry, but that fact that the audition took place in the same city where there was a storied political machine generations ago does not constitute evidence. Because there isn’t any. Just sayin.

        • Midwestern Violin says:

          The audition was chaired by Muti. That is more evidence than we all need.

        • Andrew says:

          Well Max, I wasn’t trying to offer you any evidence. As a born Chicagoan, I’ve always thought that was a good title for a book. Why so defensive?

          • Max Raimi says:

            I assumed your comment had some relevance to Norman’s post and the thread here. My bad.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:


    The young lady is incredibly talented, the family has devoted their lives to raising kids who are wonderful musicians, and she has worked very hard.

    We all wish we could have the advantages that come with being born in the right family. This is no different than the Manning family in US football, the Curry family in US basketball, and the Serkin family in music.

    Congrats to the Chens. They deserve their success.

    And the moral of the story is this:
    Pick your parents well.

    • zayin says:

      no different than the Trump family, the Bush family, the Daley family…

      The moral is this:
      All children are born equal, some are born more equal than others.

  • MacroV says:

    It’s not really a surprise that a child of the CSO concertmaster and a former BSO assistant concertmaster would turn out to be a superb musician, through genetics, exposure, and training.

    This isn’t like when Cleveland a few years ago eliminated every semi-finalist from their principal viola audition and then gave the job to someone who wanted it so badly that he didn’t bother to show up to the open audition.

  • Curtis Student says:

    Bea has been a student at Curtis since the age of 15 and served as principal viola of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra this past year despite still being one of the youngest players in the department.

  • Nanci Severance says:

    The audition was held behind a screen all the way to the end. Robert Chen was not on the audition committee. She won fair and square according to colleagues in Chicago. End of story. As a member of several audition committees, all I have observed and wanted was to find the best possible fit and player for the vacancy. No ulterior motives or shenanigans. Please don’t assume or denigrate musicians trying to do the best possible job in upholding and improving our orchestras. It is a thrill to play with great colleagues, soloists, conductors and composers.

    Nanci Severance
    Violist, San Francisco Symphony

    • sam says:

      Sigh. How naive you are.

      1) Hearsay. You weren’t there, so don’t vouch for a process you didn’t participate in., your position as a violist in another orchestra in another time zone doesn’t give you any special authority.

      2)There are more ways than one to get the candidate you want, screen or no screen. To begin with, you could eliminate the competition in the selection stage itself: who can audition and who cannot, etc etc. Chicago could’ve had an extended audition period, inviting tenured violists from major orchestras to audition. It’s all about good gatekeeping, the bouncer at the door.

      3) Only under conditions of rigorous controlled scientific studies can one truly guarantee “blind” testing. If the Supreme Court can leak, an orchestra audition can leak.

  • Couperin says:

    Well how about that!

  • Andrew Clark says:

    She won the job. What else matters? There is a probation and tenure process. That will be the real test of her candidacy.

  • Music Lover says:

    I guess Paavo Jarvi should not get hired because he is Neeme Jarvi’s son. Ken Masur should never get a job because he is Kurt Masur’s son. Bea Chen should never win CSO audition because she is Robert Chen’s daughter, doesn’t matter how good she is. What a non-sense!