The 11/11/2007 edition of the New York Times published an article by Anthony Tommasini’s which features an interview between the author and Marin Alsop. Since its publication, the article has been making the usual rounds inside the business due to Alsop’s comments regarding auditions. In that article Tommasini quotes Alsop as saying the process of blind auditions (where candidates perform behind a screen) is “fundamentally flawed.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her comments have stirred up a Hornet’s Nest, especially with the recent announcement that the Cleveland Orchestra will now implement screened auditions. Regardless of the passionate feelings this article has stirred up, the fact is that the whole thing is just one big red herring…
Well, perhaps not so much a red herring as simply much ado about nothing. For those who may not be familiar with the issues at the core of screened auditions, here’s what you need to know.
- There are no laws, rules, or enforceable regulations dictating how professional orchestras must implement their audition procedures.
- In the early 1980s, the American Federation of Musicians, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, and the Major Orchestra Managers Conference (the latter having been rolled up into the American Symphony Orchestra League) adopted the “Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions.”
- Said code is simply a guideline and contains provisions which dictate that it is “subject to local contractual considerations.”
But I digress, getting back to the NYT article I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all of the reported points Ms. Alsop made against screened auditions were mostly non-issues. For example:
“you can’t get a complete picture by listening to someone play for 20 minutes behind a screen”
Two words: tenure process. In fact, the vast majority of professional orchestras have a lengthy tenure process which places a disproportionate amount of control over whether or not a candidate is granted tenure in the hands of the music director. In the case of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where Ms. Alsop serves as Music Director, in order for a new musician to receive tenure they must receive an affirmative vote from the Music Director. Without that affirmative vote they don’t get the job, regardless if the musicians on the Tenure Review Committee vote in their favor or not.
Furthermore, it was disappointing that Ms. Alsop didn’t mention, or it wasn’t reported, that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra actually implements what she espouses during the final stages of the audition process: no screens. In fact, they adopted this system well before Ms. Alsop arrived. In particular, the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates that in the final phase of their audition process “No screen shall be used and each candidate shall play in full view of the Music Director and the Audition Committee.”
As such, instead of mentioning that the Baltimore Symphony audition process, crafted by the organization’s musicians and managers, incorporates the strengths from the screened audition policy endorsed by the Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions along with the no-screen policy Ms. Alsop endorses in the final round, the NYT article went on to report:
“Orchestral musicians have a fundamental fear of change,”[Alsop] said. Her responsibility in Baltimore, she said, is to open up the issue among the players and discuss the pros and cons.
Based on the 3,187 words the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement uses to detail the audition process and the 246 words used to detail the tenure review process, it seems as though they’ve opened up the issue a good bit already (as an aside, those of you keeping score at home have probably noted that the entire NYT article uses 1,598 less words than the BSO collective bargaining agreement uses to detail the audition and tenure process).
In the end, the next time you run across this issue, do yourself a favor and remember that this is just one big non-issue for most orchestras. The only time it isn’t is when someone wants to pick a fight about it.