Musicians travel from all over to fight for the job of a lifetime
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; September 16, 2004©
Jennifer Cox sits in the lone chair at the center of the room and holds her cello upright between her knees. She tilts her head to the ceiling’s bright lights, exhales in a gush and squeezes her eyes shut. She seals her lips, and they begin to tremble.
How many times has she gone through this — 10 now, 11? The auditions blur in her mind like a nightmarish montage. She doesn’t even tell her mother about them anymore. Cox’s coach told her she wasn’t ready for the Minnesota Orchestra, but she flew here anyway, from Cincinnati .
For months, Cox has practiced four to five hours a day, performed mock auditions in front of friends and committed nearly two hours of music to memory. Still, she felt so nervous and hyper this morning she dug a pill of Inderal from a stash she had gathered before a previous audition. Darn pill is so old it could be a placebo by now, and the thought at once made her chuckle and feel like crying.
About 20 feet away, four Minnesota Orchestra musicians face Cox, seated in silence from behind a rectangular table, waiting for her to begin playing. Another four are judging auditions of other cellists in another room. Before the weekend is over, they will have listened to 56 cellists who traveled from all over the country and beyond, paying their own expenses, to compete for one position.
For musicians who devoted large chunks of their childhoods to private lessons, survived the rigors of a conservatory and slugged out the first years of their professional lives for paupers’ pay, this is the ultimate reality show.
Jobs like these don’t open up every day, or even every year, with orchestras of this caliber. Starting salary with the Minnesota Orchestra is around $90,000 — only eight American orchestras pay more. Whoever lands this job is likely to move here and stay for the next 30 or so years.
Everyone arrived at the hall prepared to stake their life’s path on this audition. Some, like Cox, have turned the very act of auditioning into unintended habits, absorbing the pain, frustration and lessons of each rejection, stuffing away the self-doubt and hoping the next has a happy ending. Others already holding positions in low-paying professional or semi-professional orchestras are hungry, even desperate, to move up. A few are so fresh from conservatory they have no idea what they’re up against.
Cox opens her eyes and moves her bow across the strings. A moment later, she stops, and her face takes on the color of a tomato. She wipes the fingers of her left hand over her lower eyelid and looks at the musicians seated across from her.
“That’s alright,” Tony Ross, the orchestra’s principal cellist, tells her in a soft tone. “Start again.”
Cox drops her gaze and begins performing. Moments later, she has another false start, this time on an excerpt from a Mendelssohn concerto. She begins again, but several seconds into her second run, she stops.
“Can I try again?” she asks, her face flush.
“It’s alright,” Ross says. “We know it’s hard.”
Cox continues on, but the stress coats her performance — edgy and clipped. The musicians taking notes give no visual clue of their assessment, allowing Cox to finish her audition on her own, and they thank her for coming.
Cox nods, picks up her purse and cello and leaves the room, looking as if she just stepped out of a funeral.
A HOMETOWN HOPEFUL
Every musician in the Minnesota Orchestra has walked in Cox’s shoes, some arriving with more tread on their soles than others.
Like the athletes who wind up playing for the Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves, few musicians come with any connections to this area before landing jobs in the Minnesota Orchestra. Rarer, still, are musicians such as Joe Johnson, hired into the orchestra’s cello section on his first professional audition.
Jessica Parker can’t help dreaming she’s the exception to the exception – a young Minnesotan ready to claim that open seat – but she’s more grounded than that. She hasn’t auditioned for anyone in four years, since blowing a tryout with the Rochester Symphony, and that was just to make it onto the list of substitutes.
“Luckily I was behind a screen, so nobody knew who I was,” she says.
Parker is 28 years old, with curly brown hair and dark-rimmed glasses that give a hint of bookishness, but she bounces with the talkative energy of a college student. She has practiced four hours every day, on top of her weekly work with the St. Cloud Symphony and her private teaching at the MacPhail Center for Music, to prepare for this shot with the Minnesota Orchestra.
She asked advice from musicians in an Internet forum called “Cello Chat” (screen name SoundBerry). Cellists all over the country, at all levels of accomplishment, weighed in on her choice of concerto and whether she should perform from memory. She invited friends and family to an “audition party,” where she encouraged everyone to stare, whisper or cough. They just couldn’t talk directly to her or clap.
Parker even called Janet Horvath, the orchestra’s associate principal cellist, and asked for advice. Horvath told her she could “emote all over the place,” but nobody’s going to want to listen if she’s not in tune. Horvath implored her to “prepare, prepare, prepare.”
“I’m not freaking out like when I was 20,” Parker says. “I will consider it a victory getting through the whole thing without breaking down or crying.”
Tonight, the evening before her audition, she’s updating her checklist of items to bring to the hall — resin, nail file, dusting cloth, lip balm. When she gets nervous, her lips tend to stick to her teeth. She’s also going through a final mock audition with her husband, Ben, in the living room of their Uptown apartment.
She turns her eyes away from her music and performs her concerto from memory.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you play that so well in tune,” Ben says, and that draws a laugh from his wife.
Parker begins playing a Mendelssohn scherzo, one of the excerpts all the auditioning cellists have to prepare for this audition.
“That was stinky,” she says, and starts again.
Ben insists she take a sleeping pill tonight.
“Half a pill would be O.K.,” Parker allows. “For mental insurance.”
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Tony Ross and Janet Horvath sit side by side in the Minnesota Orchestra as principal and associate principal cellists, and they couldn’t contrast each other more to the eye or ear.
Ross has the height, broad shoulders and dark features of a pin-up heartthrob, if there were such a centerfold in Symphony Magazine. Horvath doesn’t reach 5 feet tall in shoes, and a string of physical ailments, caused from the repetitive stress of playing the cello, inspired her to research, write and self-publish a physical therapy treatise for musicians. Ross’ robust playing style is balanced by Horvath, whose finger shifts are so seamless it’s almost impossible to hear the breaks from one note to the next.
Heading up the committee for this audition, Ross and Horvath have chosen more than a dozen orchestral excerpts the auditioning cellists must prepare in addition to a concerto of their own choosing. They selected material demanding a variety of technical skills.
They’ve also taken the unusual step of lifting the literal curtain of anonymity normally placed between those auditioning and their judges.
Most audition committees, even those from other instrumental sections of the Minnesota Orchestra, prefer the screens, particularly during the opening rounds of an audition. With screens in place, judges don’t know the identity of the person playing before them. A quarter century ago, concerns of bias were so strong that committees asked women not to wear heels, for fear their contact with a hard floor would give away their gender.
Ideally, juries focus their valuations solely on performance. Eliminating the screen, Ross says, helps make the auditioning process “a more humane and human experience.”
“There are things we can tell about how they do their job and how they would fit in by what they do physically,” Horvath says. “And let’s face it — we could be colleagues for the next 30 years, and we want to see what the essence of that person is.”
Many of the cellists auditioning for this seat are connected in one way or another to cellists in the orchestra — through private lessons, music camps and summer festivals, or time together at a conservatory or in a chamber group. At least one auditioning cellist, during the run of these tryouts, planned to stay at the home of a Minnesota Orchestra cellist, who also happened to be among the judges for this audition.
Ross estimates having connections of his own to perhaps a quarter of those auditioning but says the chance is remote more than one judge, on this eight-member committee, has significant knowledge of any single auditioning cellist.
“If everyone took themselves out who knew somebody, we’d never have a committee,” he says.
It’s not necessarily the finest performer who will win the job, Ross and Horvath say, but the cellist who best fits the stylistic needs of this section.
“There’s kind of this idea if you do the right fingerings and bowings, you’re going to get the job,” Ross says. “Beyond that, we’re looking for artists.”
BATTING WITH TWO STRIKES
Arek Tesarczyk just finished back-to-back auditions with the Philadelphia and Boston symphonies, and he made it all the way to the finals in Boston . It was more heartbreak than hollow victory. Now, two days later, he’s in Minneapolis , confronting a whole new set of excerpts, expectations and environments.
Cello positions don’t open up at top-drawer orchestras every year, let alone at three. Tesarczyk chose to roll the dice and play for all of them. Now he’s wondering if the strategy has backfired — Is my concentration off? Am I too tired? What if I’m rejected again?
The collective cost of traveling to these auditions is enormous, and Tesarczyk is thankful and relieved friends in St. Paul have invited him to stay with them during this audition.
A native of Poland , Tesarczyk is only 38, but appears in his later 40s. Slivers of gray poke through the widow’s peak of his almond-colored hair. His pace and movements are calm and slow, like that of a koala bear, and his brow hangs low over his eyes, casting him with an ever-present air of drowsiness.
Tesarczyk tries pushing Philadelphia and Boston from his consciousness, back to the dark spot where he’s parked the residue of another wrenching audition, in Montreal . There, a few years ago, he was the only cellist invited to the finals, and the orchestra declined to hire him.
Minneapolis brings its own clash of hopes and memories. Walking up to Orchestra Hall, he can’t help but flash back to the year he and his wife lived here. While his wife taught and studied at the University of Minnesota , Tesarczyk worked parttime at a Pottery Barn on Nicollet Mall, just up the street from Orchestra Hall.
He replays those days in his mind and smiles. Whatever happened to my friend from Pottery Barn, he wonders, the man who became a Lutheran minister in northern Minnesota ? Tesarczyk went to his wedding and then lost touch.
Other images cross his mind like a slideshow, and the smile fades. He remembers thinking he didn’t graduate from the Peabody Conservatory and make his Kennedy Center debut only to live young and broke, busying himself for minimum wage at a Pottery Barn.
He could only support his wife’s career climb and wish for his own.
Tesarczyk has performed for the past 10 years as principal cellist with the Winnipeg Symphony, in Canada . To this day, he’s surprised how happy he and is family are there. More than for himself, he’s thinking about his young son and daughter. He wants them to grow up in a clean, safe, cultured place.
Tesarczyk carries his cello into Orchestra Hall and checks in with the personnel director. Nobody looking at him would notice he’s nervous or anxious. If I don’t get this job, he thinks, I don’t know if I can muster the strength to do this again.