An Audition Catastrophe

The following true story is an excerpt from my book, Symphonies & Scorpions:

In 1981 I took an audition for associate concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, which was supposed to have been a slam-dunk but ended up an unmitigated disaster. At that time Pittsburgh’s music director was Andre Previn, a fine musician with a keen wit and great respect for musicians. Prior to the September audition, Previn guest conducted at Tanglewood, where he appeared regularly. With the associate concertmaster position in mind, Joseph Silverstein, then the BSO’s concertmaster and my former violin teacher at Yale, helped set up a private audition for me with Previn at Tanglewood. After I played for Previn and Marshall Turkin, Pittsburgh’s CEO who was also at Tanglewood for some meetings, they essentially handed me the job. And more.

Pittsburgh’s longtime concertmaster, Fritz Siegal, would soon be retiring, they told me. And though Previn didn’t have the total authority to hire an associate concertmaster, he told me in no uncertain terms that he had the contractual authority to hire the concertmaster. Turkin nodded in agreement. The intimation was clear.

Siegal was going to perform the Bloch violin concerto on Pittsburgh’s season-opening concert. On the same program was Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, which has one of the most virtuoso concertmaster solos in the repertoire. Previn invited me to come down to Pittsburgh to be guest concertmaster for the week, and since Siegal would be performing only the concerto, I would be the Scheherazade soloist. He also wanted me to “play for a few of the guys” to formalize what would be my appointment as associate concertmaster. I asked Previn what music I should prepare for “the guys.” Anything you want, he told me.

I decided on the Scherzo Tarentelle by Henri Wieniawski, a well-known 19th century virtuoso show piece; the Phantasy for Violin and Piano by the famous 12-tone composer, Arnold Schoenberg; and a couple movements from a solo sonata by Bach. I thought that mix would demonstrate my versatility, and as the first two of those pieces are never on audition repertoire lists, would distinguish my playing from the standard fare.

 I arrived in Pittsburgh and had a wonderful time being wined and dined by Previn and assistant conductor, Michael Lancaster. The next morning I arrived at Heinz Hall, adrenaline pumping, primed to embark my next step to stardom, fame and fortune.

I was approached by one of the musicians. He handed me a list. What’s this? I asked. It’s what we want you to play from the repertoire list, he replied. I was confused. On the list were a dozen orchestra excerpts, including several concertmaster solos, and two concertos. You’re here for the audition, right? he asked. I nodded. You can go into that room, he said, pointing.

I became aware of a dozen other violinists warming up for the audition. Something had gone terribly awry. At that point I should have either called timeout and had a discussion with Previn, or packed my bags but, at twenty-nine years old, I was still a bit of a greenhorn. And shell-shocked.

I frantically practiced the excerpts—cramming a month of dedicated practice into an hour—before going onstage to play before a formal audition committee.

Not surprisingly, I totally bombed. Afterwards, Previn called me into his office, offered his condolences and told me if I’d rather not play the opening week he would certainly understand. I suppose I could have made a stink, but diffidence got the better of me, and besides, I didn’t see that bitching would have done any good. I decided to stay and play because I didn’t want the PSO musicians thinking I was as bad as my audition had clearly led them to believe. The Scheherazade went all right, though all week I felt daggers in my back from musicians who thought I had tried to circumvent the audition process. Previn later told Silverstein that I had done a great job leading the orchestra. Kind words, perhaps, but merely a Band-Aid for a wound that left a permanent scar.

A lot of real life stories in the world of the orchestra musician have happy endings. You’ll find many of them in Symphonies & Scorpions.



1 thought on “An Audition Catastrophe

  1. ccyager

    Wow. Auditions can be so humiliating sometimes. I’ve worked them, usually just herding the candidates to where they need to be and answering questions, but I’m familiar with the atmosphere. You don’t say whether it was a blind audition or not. Since the musicians knew you, I’m assuming that it wasn’t. That makes it even harder, I think. Surprised that Previn and the other conductor weren’t aware of the audition procedure. It wasn’t kind of them to give you the wrong instructions. But you survived and learned from the experience, and went on to continue making music.



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