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The Birth of the US Orchestral Audition.

To secure a seat in a symphony orchestra, musicians across North America face a rigorous and demanding audition. While many of us have participated in auditions in recent decades, it is helpful to understand how our current system came about, and what has influenced its format. This research focuses on auditions in the United States and Canada into the mid-1960s. It is part of a dissertation, From Hotels to Concert Halls: the Evolution of the Orchestral French Horn Audition, and is compiled through research and interviews of professional hornists and pedagogues across North America.

Early Orchestras in the US

The first symphony in the United States was founded in 1842, known as the Philharmonic Society of New York, later becoming the New York Philharmonic. The St. Louis Symphony was founded next in 1880, and others quickly followed suit, including Boston in 1881, Chicago in 1891, and Cincinnati and Portland in 1895. By the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the big cities held part-time orchestras. (1)

While the European and American orchestras had similar aspirations artistically, their national, organizational, and economic context was radically different. Unlike European orchestra musicians, American musicians had to obtain both musical and non-musical employment into the twentieth century. Rather than being part of an established system, they were building their own culture from the ground up. The examples here illustrate how orchestral histories, unions, and conductors played roles in hiring procedures.

Role of Unions

Orchestras' histories are closely related to the formation of labor federations and union involvement. In 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and National League of Musicians (NLM) were both formed. The NLM did not want to be part of the AFL, and in 1881 in Cincinnati the AFL set up the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). By 1896, the NLM was absorbed by the AFM, and in 1904 Canada was included.

The labor union played a large part in hiring processes in the first half of the twentieth century. By 1917 all major American symphony orchestras were unionized except the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which held out until 1942. (2) Many unions specified that the orchestra could not hire outside the local unless no local musician was qualified, and the unions were also segregated. Locals required a three-year waiting period for a non-local musician to join the local union, meaning the musician could not work outside the orchestra for three years. Yet local musicians were paid less than imported players. (3)

Conductors often found ways to circumvent union issues. When Theodore Thomas organized the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, he brought most of his New York orchestra to Chicago as the basis for the new group. In response to union protests, Thomas insisted: "I shall select my players where I find them ... in New York ... or Europe. If there are good men in Chicago, I shall use them." (4) Some of the biggest problems arose when local musicians in big cities tried to keep their jobs, while the orchestras--citing artistic supremacy--hired who they wanted.

The Cleveland Orchestra's debut featured mostly homegrown talent. During its formation in 1918, conductor Nikolai Sokoloff listened to local theater orchestras and hotel bands, as well as contacting musicians who had been members of Cleveland's previous orchestras. (5) Once a core was established, Sokoloff filled remaining seats through auditions in New York. (6) Succeeding conductor Artur Rodzinski fought publicly with the union over hiring processes. When he and management attempted to hire five imported players in the 1937 season, the union threatened to halt the season. The general manager accused the union president of trying to dictate which players the orchestra could hire. The president argued that the orchestra was discriminating against Cleveland musicians. (7)

These examples are not unusual, as many conductors had preexisting relationships with top players they knew and trusted.

Into the 20th Century

Unfortunately, orchestra personnel lists and histories remain largely undocumented. Few rosters of musicians were printed until the mid-1950s and many records have been destroyed. As a result, accounts of who played for each orchestra, and how they gained employment, remain a mystery.

Xaver (1856-1938) and Josef (1848-1921) Reiter are an example of how horns gained employment at the turn of the century. Xaver's appointment to the Boston Symphony Orchestra involved conductor Wilhelm Gericke, a former conductor of the Vienna Court Opera. Gericke returned to Europe after his first season in Boston to scout for new players, and either saw Xaver at the 1886 Bayreuth Festival or heard of him by reputation. Xaver could have either answered an advertisement placed in a larger German city newspaper or one of the symphony representatives ultimately auditioned him. (8) His brother Josef received an offer in 1889 to join the Metropolitan Opera, and took a two-year leave from his position at the Bavarian High Royal Court. (9) The two worked in several major American orchestras in the years that followed--even trading positions briefly to avoid domestic issues--though which positions were auditioned and which contracted remains unclear.

Invitations for up-and coming musicians through recommendations and word of mouth were common during the early twentieth century. The Berv Brothers, Arthur (1906-1992), Jack (1908-1994), and Harry (1911-2006), were some of the biggest players in New York beginning in the 1930's. Arthur started his professional career acting as assistant to his teacher Anton Horner in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and later played principal horn. Jack and Harry were hired to play Wagner tubas for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Toscanini liked the brothers so much that he asked them to join the orchestra. Arthur was also offered the principal horn position, and the three played in the NBC Orchestra as well as Symphony of the Air. (10) Nineteen-year-old Mason Jones (1919-2009) was invited to audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1938 and was offered third horn, moving to principal horn the following season. (11)

The War Years

During wartime when capable young men were in short supply, it was not uncommon to play multiple instruments in a major orchestra, and auditions were not common. For example, Charles Blabolil played first violin, viola, and horn in the Cleveland Orchestra starting in 1918, often playing as Philip Farkas's assistant or extra horn in the larger symphonies. He was one of few who didn't have to serve in the military, and he stepped in as full-time horn during the Second World War.

University of Victoria professor Kurt Kellan explains that when Farkas auditioned in the early 1930s, often five people attended, and if they owned their own horn, they had a job. Farkas told him, "Look, we just went and played for conductors. That's how we got the job." Kellan asked him, "What if somebody comes along and is better or something?" He said, "It doesn't matter, that's the way it was." Farkas didn't feel guilty about it. He remarked, "Look, it's a different world now. Was it right? I can't say yes or no. But that's the way we did it." Indiana University Professor Richard Seraphinoff reflects on Farkas's accounts of how he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945. Farkas set his sights on joining the Boston Symphony. He modified his existing Cleveland contract to say "Boston" (as well as giving himself a raise), and put the amended contract on his stand for inspiration, though he still had great respect for the current BSO principal, Willem Valkenier. Coincidentally, the following incident occurred soon afterwards, as related by Seraphinoff.

A few months later, he received a phone call from the personnel manager [of the BSO] and he said that Mr. Valkenier had sprained his wrist on a tour, and the hassle of replacement was not ideal. The conductor decided that they needed a co-principal horn, and called him to come audition. He went to the conductor's hotel room, he didn't have any music with him or any indication of what to prepare--he could only assume what excerpts were likely. The conductor said, "Can you play that nice solo from Tchaikovsky 5?" And he played it, then he said "How about that solo from Mid-summer Night's Dream?" And he played that, then he said, "Now how about that tricky opening from Till?...." The lowest note in orchestra music I know in orchestra music is the pedal E in Mahler 3 (and Farkas said that was because Shostakovich 5 hadn't been written yet), and the highest note I know is from Symphonia Domestica--the high e'". "So can you play me a major scale from one to the other and back down?" And Phil said he managed to start on the pedal E and made it up to the high e'" and back down, and the conductor said, "Well, it looks like you've got all the notes, sign here!"

Seraphinoff learned from Farkas that their generation memorized the music, "because if you were qualified for the job, you would know the excerpts." Players were expected to know major excerpts from most symphonies, and at the auditions would play from scores, a package prepared by the conductor, or by memory. Some would also be expected to perform a solo.

Some of the greatest hornists of the twentieth century acquired their positions through reputation and connections. They would often be invited to play for a conductor or appointed directly to the position. James Decker's first professional positions--at the National Symphony Orchestra (1942-43), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1943-44), Fox Studios, and Kansas City (1946-47)--were offered without audition. Decker explains,
      My first audition was through recommendation from the trumpet
   player from my Youth Orchestra for the National Symphony ... Section
   horn in the (Los Angeles) Philharmonic here was open and Alfred (a
   trumpet-playing friend) just called me and asked me if I would like
   a trial ... but National Symphony ... seemed like a better deal so
   I took the second horn job there.

Five years later the same trumpet player called him and asked if he would like to be recommended to play with Kansas City. At the same time, he was then asked to audition for the first horn position for Columbia Studios and took that job.

Harold Meek's induction into professional horn playing came through playing at the Berkshire Music Center in 1941 and 1942, mostly first horn, and gaining the attention of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who invited him to join his orchestra, but could not secure funding. "When we met, he said, 'Don't vorry for vee vill be together. But how would you like it to go to Pittsburgh now? Reiner is looking for a horn and I will call him.'" (12) Reiner invited him to audition at his summer home in Connecticut and offered Meek a contract for the 1942-43 season. (13) Meek recounts, "Reiner gave me the return train fare to my home--music students were as poor then as always, though I cannot imagine such a thing happening today." (14) Returning home, Meek stopped at Eastman School of Music and heard of an audition for the first horn position that had just opened in the Rochester Orchestra. Within minutes of calling the conductor in Rochester, he played at the school for him, got the job, and secured a better salary than Reiner offered, though leaving to play for Koussevitzky a few years later. (15)

In the 1940s and '50s, the conductors and sometimes managers would listen to many of their auditions in New York City or Chicago. The musicians would hear about these auditions through the grapevine, at their schools, through the union postings, or by writing directly to the orchestra. In New York and Los Angeles, only local union members would be able to audition (locals were still segregated); at this time, most other orchestras heard local musicians before the conductor traveled to the big cities for auditions. (16)

In the mid-1940s as conductors moved to different orchestras, there were some raids on other orchestras' musicians. Since conductors had full hiring and firing power, several orchestras faced enormous turnover, and contracts were not always renewed. Others tried to take their musicians with them to their new posts. Upon signing in Chicago in 1947, Artur Rodzinski tried to hire three principal players from Cleveland, including Farkas. None accepted the offer. George Szell had more luck in Cleveland, although a small storm ensued. (17) Szell argued, "Any organization is entitled to approach any artist in perfectly good faith for a time for which he is not legally committed to another organization." (18)

Auditions Established

By the mid 1950's, auditions were becoming more common, as after the war there were many great horn players available. One interview subject clarifies that auditions for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in the 1950s and Buffalo in 1958 were held only as single rounds. Norman Schweikert's first job came from a hotel room audition in Los Angeles for the fourth horn in the Rochester Philharmonic in 1955. (19) For former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra principal hornist Michael Hatfield, auditions were a similar experience. "At that time, people were invited for these high-powered jobs. At that point there were no screens."

Other orchestras drew on local institutions to cultivate sound and talent. For example, since its foundation in 1924, the Curtis Institute has contributed far more than any other single institution to the Philadelphia Orchestra's personnel. Its students have been influenced by the presence and the proximity of Philadelphia's players, assisting in the continuity of sound. At age nineteen, Mason Jones was one of many who joined straight out of Curtis.

The following example delineates how power has shifted and why Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) outline hiring and firing protocol so clearly today. Before musicians' unions gained power in the mid-1960s, the hiring process was autocratic. A conductor hired whom he wished at whatever price he wanted--within reason. When Cleveland Orchestra director George Szell liked what he heard, he closed the deal himself. Szell occasionally asked assistant or principal players to find a replacement, but most musicians played for Szell one on one, either on stage at Severance Hall, in a hotel room, or in a concert hall in another city. (20) Szell first asked for a solo piece, partly to relax the musician, partly to gauge technique and musical prowess. Another solo or excerpts followed. If interested, he often asked the candidate to alter phrasing or style to demonstrate flexibility. Auditions often turned into mini-lessons, with Szell suggesting bowings, fingerings (for string, wind, and brass players alike), and phrasing that would help the candidate reach specific musical goals. (21)

Myron Bloom gained an audition for the Cleveland Orchestra through his summer training program. "When I was attending Marlborough ... the associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra ... heard me play, and he said 'I'm going to talk to Szell about you.' And wouldn't you know it, he called me to come play. And I played and I won the job." Bloom clarifies that he had choice on what solos and excerpts to play in his half-hour audition. By 1965, as unions and musicians gained power, Szell was forced to change his contract to avoid strikes. He responded, "I view with extreme alarm the continuing and growing tendency of the American orchestras to usurp the functions of musical director and management, in particular in the question of hiring and firing." (22)

Harold Meek explains how audition committees began in the Boston Symphony. When Koussevitzky announced his retirement 1948, eight musicians were not offered contract renewals. Meek was on the Committee on Dismissals and Non-Renewals and went to see the president of the trustees about the situation. The president took responsibility for the firings, and said the trustees gave too much power to the conductor. Meek said in return that it was not the duty of the president--a non-musician--to take on this duty. The president asked the incoming conductor, Charles Munch, to re-audition the players and to abide by his judgment. The Committee on Dismissals and Non-Renewals approached Munch and he agreed to listen to each of the eight men if the committee members could also listen to their colleagues play. To Meek's relief, almost all were reinstated, but he felt that ultimately auditions by committee were not ideal, and that appointments were a conductor's responsibility. (23)

The workplace environment of professional musicians changed radically over the 1960s. Several events spurred the change, including removing autocratic power from conductors and musicians becoming more involved. Until the 1960s, union support for symphonies was almost entirely focused on enforcing the hire of local musicians. In 1962, symphony musicians from several locals founded the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). They established a need for committees, regulated protocol, and more. While the AFM first accused ICSOM of "dual unionism," they eventually merged in 1969, representing fifty-two orchestras with budgets of five million dollars or higher and later creating a Symphonic Services Division. (24)

Audition Committees

Dale Clevenger's path to winning the principal horn position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) coincided with the early use of orchestra committees. His story shows the progression of audition formats in the 1960s.

Clevenger had his first major orchestral win when in 1962 he travelled to Leopold Stokowski's home to audition for the American Symphony Orchestra, playing from an audition book Stokowski assembled, and successfully adapting to Stokowski's suggestions. (25) Clevenger was also offered second horn with the Pittsburgh Orchestra after participating in a tour with them, but he declined the position. Without screens or impartiality, Clevenger says he missed some opportunities--for one position, he was an "unknown quantity," and they decided to go with the player they knew instead, though he later heard he had the best audition of the day. At another audition, even though many able players were present, a teacher's student was chosen to fill the vacancy.

Clevenger's first audition for the CSO took place in May 1965, and he was one of the few of the initial twenty-five that advanced, though no one was hired. The only people present were the personnel manager, associate conductor, and manager, and no player's committee existed at that time. After replacing the principal horn for part of a rehearsal for Symphony of the Air with conductor Alfred Wallenstein, he received an endorsement from Wallenstein as well as one from Leopold Stokowski to the CSO conductor. He returned in January 1966 for an invited audition. Because of the creation of an audition committee between the initial audition and the second one, the committee had to vote to invite him to the audition. Clevenger was the only candidate present and he played for a full committee, including conductor Jean Martinon, the personnel manager, and acting principal horn Frank Brouk. The audition lasted for twenty-five minutes, then Clevenger was asked to play with the orchestra in the rehearsal immediately following his audition. Andre Previn conducted Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony while Martinon observed. Clevenger feels that playing with the orchestra was what ultimately won him the position.

In the 1960s the musicians' unions relaxed their insistence on hiring local talent. While not mandated, screens became common protocol in the 1970s to protect identity and encourage impartiality. This eliminated the previously segregated, mostly male workplace in major orchestras. In 1984, the Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions was unanimously approved by the AFM, ICSOM delegates, and the Major Orchestra Managers Conference. This monumental feat was the first time musicians and managers worked together to address such a major issue. The document is a guideline for the review of local policies and practices. The code does not force orchestras to follow specific protocol; for example, it contains no mention of screens. The code explains instead, "There should be no discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, creed, national origin, religion, or sexual preference; steps ensuring this should exist in all phases of the audition process." (26) At the same time, regional orchestra musicians were facing similar and unique issues to those addressed by ICSOM in 1962. The Regional Orchestra Players' Association (ROPA) was established in 1987 for communication between the orchestras that faced unique concerns relating to per-service and core musicians. ROPA now includes eighty unionized orchestras with large and medium sized budgets.

While several standards are established by the Audition Code of Ethics, it does not address how to fill vacancies after failed auditions. One subject notes that when the winner of an audition several decades past backed out from his offer with the Metropolitan Opera, he was called and asked to take the seat in his stead. Several subjects remark that this situation may be purposely created to manipulate auditions.

Since orchestras were not bound to the guidelines, several less formalized auditions still took place in the years that followed. Former Toronto Symphony Orchestra second horn and University of Toronto professor Harcus Hennigar has had a variety of experiences in audition formats. When applying for the first horn position with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 1974, the informal audition was arranged by his teacher, Eugene Rittich, at the University of Toronto. Hennigar remembers choosing his own excerpts for the audition, and that the panel traveled to listen to candidates across Canada. He played for the conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1970's in a Toronto hotel room, performing for him a Strauss Concerto and excerpts.

Current Audition Procedures

In the last decades, auditions have become increasingly formalized, and several standard procedures have been established, though there is still variance between each orchestra's ideal setup. Orchestra policies are clarified through Collective Bargaining Agreements and supported by orchestra committees and musicians' associations. These practices will be outlined in the next article on current audition procedures.

Dr. Ashley Cumming is an instructor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Marian University, and University of Indianapolis. Originally from Cambridge, Ontario, she is principal horn with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic and COSI Opera Orchestra in Italy and hornist with Spark Brass. Cumming holds a Doctorate of Music from Indiana University. Her dissertation is available at


(1) Ayer, Julie, More than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History, Minneapolis: Syren Book Company, 2005, p. 5.

(2) Ibid., p. 113.

(3) Ibid., 13.

(4) Mueller, John K., The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951, p. 346.

(5) Rosenberg, Donald, The Cleveland Orchestra Story, Cleveland: Gray & Company, 2000, p. 51.

(6) Ibid., p. 62.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Schweikert, Norman, The Horns of Valhalla: Saga of the Reiter Brothers, Gurnee: Windsong Press, 2012, p. 29.

(9) Ibid., 35.

(10) International Horn Society, "The Berv Brothers," Accessed January 7, 2014,

(11) International Horn Society, "Mason Jones," Accessed January 7, 2014,

(12) Harold Meek, Harold, Horn and Conductor: Reminiscences of a Practitioner with a Few Words of Advice, Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997, p. 13.

(13) Ibid., p. 14.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid., p. 15.

(16) Ayer, op. cit., p. 5.

(17) Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 248.

(18) Ibid., p. 249.

(19) Schweikert, op. cit., p. iii.

(20) Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 255.

(21) Ibid., p. 256.

(22) Ibid., p. 361.

(23) Meek, op. cit., pp. 7-18.

(24) Flanagan, Robert J., Symphony Musicians and Symphony Orchestras, Stanford, CA: Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, 2008, p. 11.

(25) Tung, Margaret, Dale Clevenger: Performer and Teacher, PhD Diss., Ohio State University, 2009, p. 49.

(26) From the code of ethical audition practices, approved in 1984 by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), the Major Orchestra Managers Conference (MOMC), and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), section f.
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Author:Cumming, Ashley
Publication:The Horn Call
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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