More Canceled Auditions In St. Louis

Back at the beginning of the January the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra management made the 11th hour decision to cancel the semi final and final rounds of the scheduled French Horn and Double Bass auditions which ignited a firestorm of media attention and a War of words regarding whether or not he musicians of the SLSO were on strike or being locked out. 

A few days later, it appeared that the players were indeed locked out although management continues to assert they are on strike.  The only sure thing you can count on to resolve that issue is if the negotiation impasse continues long enough a review panel of the Missouri Unemployment Insurance Board will rule on the issue; hopefully, that won’t be necessary.

But it’s nearly a month later and there’s another round of auditions being canceled, or “postponed” according to the SLSO management.  This time it was for two of the most important positions in the string section; Principal and Associate Principal Cello. 

The planned preliminary audition rounds on 1/24, 1/31, and 2/7 have all been officially cancelled by the SLSO management with no date provided as to when they will be rescheduled (and without definite make up dates, it seem more like a “cancellation” as opposed to a “postponement” to me).

“Artistic Quality Will Suffer” – PR Flak or Legitimate Concern?

Throughout the past several weeks, the SLSO musicians have claimed that in order to attract the best of the best world class talent they need to keep pace with what their peer orchestras pay.  The SLSO management claims this isn’t the case and the organization will be able to attract the same level of musicians they always have, even with a lower pay scale.

The recent round of cello audition cancellations may be the first real test of that philosophy.

The open SLSO cello positions are for the two premier chairs in the cello section.  These particular positions attract an even higher level of player than do the regular section positions due to the higher pay, increased responsibility, prestige, and solo opportunities.

For every orchestra, “who” they have sitting in that seat is claim to bragging rights; for example, the New York Philharmonic has the legendary cellist Carter Brey as their principal cellist. 

With the recent competition among other orchestras for principal cello positions hotter than normal right now, the SLSO may never know who they could have ended up bragging about.  The orchestras in both Chicago and San Francisco have assistant cello auditions in January and February and a small horde of other good orchestras like Fort Wroth have a principal seat open.

Perhaps one of the next great orchestra cellists will bypass St. Louis and head north to Chicago or west to San Francisco because they don’t like being put off or simply don’t feel like waiting around to see what happens.  The only thing the SLSO can be certain of is that they will never know because the auditions aren’t taking place.

It will be interesting to talk to the winners of some of these other cello auditions going on and ask them if they had originally planned on taking the SLSO audition.  At the very least, speculation about possible answers to that question should give the SLSO management and musicians something to ponder during their day.

I think it would also be interesting to find out how many current SLSO musicians are either currently engaged in auditions or actively sending out resumes to other orchestras.

One of the lessons we learn from childhood is that it’s very difficult to build something up but considerably easier to tear it down.  I hope people in St. Louis are thinking about those same childhood lessons.

Postscript: Other auditions scheduled at the St. Louis symphony this season include (in chronological order): assistant principal flute, principal clarinet, and principal viola.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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