Your Orchestra Says It’s Progressive, Your Auditions Requirements Say Otherwise: 2022 Update

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Several years back I wrote an article about why it was important for orchestras to update their audition repertoire requirements. The repertoire lists that musicians were asked to prepare for auditions was not reflecting the updated missions of the ensembles, nor was it reflective of the music being programmed.

Over the last four years, the social justice movement has had a positive influence on the way orchestras approach programming while some are producing DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) statements.

As we head towards what we think is the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel of this pandemic, orchestras are once again sending out auditions and job opening announcements. So, I’ll repeat what I wrote four years ago:

I know this is a can of worms, and I can almost hear the groans from audition committees who are planning upcoming auditions. But how sincere is it to say your orchestra actively promotes outreach and diversity, new music, and gender equality when your orchestra lists only dead white male composers on the audition repertoire requirements?

Let’s look at a typical violin audition list:

  1. Mendelssohn Scherzo
  2. Brahms Symphony #4
  3. Schumann Symphony #2
  4. Mozart Symphony #39
  5. Shostakovich Symphony #5
  6. Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Overture

Obviously, there are many more, but you get the point: All. Dead. White. Males.

I’m not suggesting committees eliminate these standards but keep a fair amount. Just adjust the required repertoire to reflect the progressiveness that is being touted. Here’s why the industry should change/adjust the repertoire requirements:

  • It would be hypocritical not to.
  • Committees can tell if a musician can count with music from any period. Something in the late 20thcentury or even 21st century would be super.
  • Qualified candidates should be able showcase their tone, pitch, style, and technique with anygenre or composer.
  • There are now enough living, women, and minority composers’ works being regularly programmed, candidates should be expected to be proficient in that programming at the auditions.

Coming back to 2022, I’d like to add a few thoughts of why we need to adjust our audition repertoire. Here are a few facts we are learning from the pandemic years:

  • Last minute repertoire changes became the norm.
  • George Walker’s Lyric for Strings was programmed significantly more than large symphonic works by Strauss and Schumann.
  • Smaller orchestra pieces by living composers like Jessie Montgomery, Wang Jie, and Gabriela Lena Frank dominated the 20/21 and 21/22 programming.
  • Last minute substitute players were hired to sight read a concert with minimal rehearsal.

Why is all this important for auditions moving forward? Well, we just proved musicians must perform with the flexibility needed to support the expectations of the above items. While it is important to have symphonic works by Brahms, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Strauss, and Schumann in the fingers or lips, it is equally as important to be proficient in learning new music at the last minute while standing by the commitment to represent a broader spectrum of composers than what was traditional.

In the last two years we’ve shown a spotlight on our deficiencies. We knew they were there, and yet we ignored them. Now, as I go through the audition requirements of orchestras around the country, I’m disappointed to see only a tiny representation of composers who are not dead and or white in the audition lists.

Even though I’ve only hit the repertoire lists of orchestras advertising in the January International Musician magazine, it was a fair representation of things to come…. which seems to be more of the same. With the exception of Philadelphia Orchestra’s Associate Concertmaster audition list, which included one work by a living female composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, every other orchestra’s list was standard as ever.

We know the knee-jerk desire to keep auditions as simple as possible. But using decades old audition expectations, while proclaiming this field is as progressive as ever, is asking for that metaphorical wedgie in the playground. It’s time to put priorities in the right places.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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