By: Roger Cline, CSO double bassist since 1973
It has been 43 years since I won the audition for my position in the CSO bass section. It was truly a life changing event for me and even after all these years, I still have memories of that audition process.
Just as I did, every Member of the CSO must secure their position in the CSO through the competitive, anonymous audition procedure the CSO uses to select new players. The procedure in use now is the same as was used all those years ago when I auditioned. In fact, the procedure was fairly new then and the CSO was one of the first major orchestras to institute this type of anonymous, competitive audition procedure. Virtually all U.S. orchestras now use this impartial procedure and the CSO is foremost in allowing anyone to audition with no judgments about who will be allowed to audition.
When a position becomes open in the orchestra, the audition for that opening is advertised in the union paper. Then, those who wish to audition contact the CSO personnel office and schedule an audition date. When the candidate arrives for the audition, their anonymity is preserved by assigning them to a warm up room in a separate area and being a assigned a number which is their only identification to the Audition Committee.
The Audition Committee, which judges the candidates who audition, is made up of seven elected Members of the orchestra, the section leader of the section in which the opening exists and one Member assigned by the Orchestra Members’ Committee to assure that all audition procedures are followed. The audition candidates play on the stage of OH and are visually screened from the committee to assure impartiality.
Each member of the Audition Committee, without discussion with other members of the Committee, votes on each candidate by secret ballot either “Yes” or “No” whether in their judgment, the candidate is capable of performing in the CSO.
The music selected for the audition is available to the candidates before the audition, but any passages from the audition “list” may be requested and usually “sight reading” of unprepared passages is also requested.
If the candidate receives six “Yes” votes in this preliminary round, they are then passed on to the “Final” audition. The Music Director makes the decision whom, if anyone, is hired amongst those who also receive at least six “Yes” votes from the Audition Committee voting in this “Final Audition” round.
Most positions are auditioned for by from 50 to hundreds of candidates. Sometimes, a number of audition rounds take place before a candidate is finally hired.
After the winner of the audition begins playing regular concerts with the Music Director conducting, they are granted tenure in the orchestra within two years, if the Music Director and the members of the section in which they play feel they “fit in” and meet the levels of musical style and accuracy the CSO demands.
It is easy to see then, why this thorough audition procedure has resulted hiring performers that produce the “World’s Best, Chicago’s Own” reputation for which CSO performances are known throughout the world.
By: Max Raimi, CSO violist since 1984
I remember a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fifth early in my career with the CSO. The ancient part we were reading from was dog-eared, yellowed and frayed. I was mystified to see crude decades-old hash marks scrawled into the part at various intervals. My stand partner, a 35-year veteran of the orchestra, explained to me that these marks must have been left over from a recording session back in the days of the old 78 RPMs, when each side of the record could only hold a few minutes of music. They would play enough for one side of the record and then stop at the hash marks. Whoever had scrawled those marks was no doubt long dead by the time I saw them.
Just as that viola part had been passed on through the generations, so had the music that was written on it. I sometimes like to think of our repertoire as a living chain, originating centuries ago and, I fervently hope, destined to continue on long after any of us in the orchestra at the moment are still alive. I can return again and again to a beloved symphony and always be renewed by it. In concerts, its effect on the congregation in the hall is palpable. If our performance is worthy of the music, this magic can never die.
Whatever our religious affiliations (or lack thereof), all of us in the Chicago Symphony share a common spiritual calling. We are dedicated to this chain across the generations; we are committed to the mission of keeping our music alive. When all of our work comes to fruition and we give a genuinely transcendent performance, the joy is hard to describe.
We have become one with something that goes beyond ourselves, that supersedes somehow the limitations of our own lives and our own mortality. The Principal Violist when I joined the orchestra, Milton Preves, first came to the CSO in 1934. Now I am seeing around me kids in their 20s, who may well be playing with the orchestra past the middle of this century—I have played with well over a century’s worth of musicians in my CSO career. Yet the great span of the tradition our orchestra is charged with preserving dwarfs this time frame. It has been a privilege to serve as a small link in the chain.
Our Maestro: How Riccardo Muti Accepted the Position of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
By: Susan Synnestvedt, CSO violinist since 1986
There was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air at Orchestra Hall on the morning of September 11, 2007. The world-famous maestro, Riccardo Muti, was about to walk onstage and start our first rehearsal together. Maestro Muti hadn’t conducted the CSO for over 30 years, so most of us had never worked with him before, but I felt like I knew more than most about the Maestro. I attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia while Maestro Muti was Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I remember banners fluttering throughout center-city Philadelphia with the words, Tutti per Muti, emblazoned on them. I went to many Muti-led concerts, sitting way up high at the Academy of Music.
While a senior at Curtis, I was asked to be a violin substitute for a special concert with Maestro Muti conducting. It was a quick one-rehearsal, one-concert program. The piano soloist was Rudolf Serkin, whose Marlboro Chamber Music Festival I had attended the previous summer. Mr. Serkin was performing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, a standard that everyone but me had played before! I could barely enjoy Serkin’s beautiful playing because I had to concentrate very intently on the old, yellowed second violin part. I certainly didn’t want to play where I wasn’t supposed to. I also played Ravel’s Bolero for the first time during that concert. I remember being impressed with Maestro Muti’s elegance on the podium, but I don’t remember him saying a word during that rehearsal.
After more than twenty years, I was curious to see the Maestro again that September morning. Maestro Muti strode onto the stage at Orchestra Hall and began to speak. He introduced himself in a melodious baritone voice with charming Italian-accented English. The Maestro was funny, self-effacing and he quickly put us all at ease. When he began to conduct, it was as if we’d all been making music together for years. That was a relief, because we had two weeks of rehearsals and concerts scheduled in Chicago, and then a two-week tour of Europe. Taking an international tour with a conductor we’d never worked with seemed like a gamble, but the tour was wonderful, with everyone enjoying this new musical relationship between Maestro Muti and the Orchestra. There was no doubt that we wanted this relationship to continue. But Maestro Muti had made it clear that he wasn’t interested in being the leader of another American orchestra.
The CSO had been without a Music Director since June of 2006. We were very fortunate to have had the marvelous Bernard Haitink serve as Principal Conductor since then, but he didn’t want the responsibilities of being a full-time leader of the CSO. During that European tour in the fall of 2007, it was obvious to the musicians that Riccardo Muti should become our next Music Director. But how? Could he possibly be persuaded? Our bass trombone player, Charlie Vernon, had played in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Maestro Muti and they had remained friends ever since. Knowing that the Maestro preferred traditional forms of communication, Charlie's wife, Alison suggested that we each write a letter to Maestro thanking him for the fantastic tour and letting him know that we’d like him to consider being our Music Director. Nearly every CSO musician wrote Maestro a heartfelt, hand-written letter; the letters were all sent together in one large envelope to Maestro’s house in Ravenna, Italy.
Cut to May 2008. A special meeting had been called on a Monday, a day off for the musicians, at Symphony Center. We were encouraged to attend, so I got into my car for the trip downtown. I was dying to know what was going on, and hoped that somehow Maestro Muti would be involved. As I turned on my car radio, WFMT was announcing that Riccardo Muti would become the tenth Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I like to think that our letters to Maestro Muti played a part in his decision.
By: David Sanders, CSO cellist since 1974
I left Miami, Florida in 1967 for Northwestern University, For four years I studied the cello with Dudley Powers, and was also a member of the Civic Orchestra where I had weekly cello sectionals with Frank Miller, the legendary Principal Cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After my freshman year I decided to stay in Evanston and arranged to take lessons with Mr. Miller. I had six lessons in eight weeks, and practiced eight or more hours a day. I was a late starter on the cello, beginning at age 14, so working on the fundamentals of cello playing was a vital part of my training. I spent hours and hours every day on scales, arpeggios and etudes, plus quite a bit of repertoire, and four Strauss Tone Poems: Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration and Til Eulenspiegel. These lessons were absolutely unforgettable, and my progress was very rapid. Listening to Mr. Miller demonstrate, hearing what the cello was capable of, hearing that most amazing of all cello sounds left an indelible mark on me. I seemed to have his sound “stuck” in my ear, and I began to focus my playing on creating the most singing and beautiful sound that I could.
The following summer, after my sophomore year, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Grant Park Symphony. I also continued to have a few lessons with Mr. Miller, but scheduling was now much more difficult. For the next two years at Northwestern, I continued with very occasional lessons, and the weekly sectionals with Mr. Miller. By the time I graduated from Northwestern I had made enough progress to win a position with the Milwaukee Symphony. I enjoyed my season in Milwaukee, but in the spring a position opened up in the Lyric Opera Orchestra, which I won. I just wanted to be back in Chicago, closer to Mr. Miller.
After my second season at Lyric, in December, 1973, I became the Principal Cellist of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando, where, coincidentally, Frank Miller had been Music Director following his fifteen years as Principal Cellist of the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini. I was enjoying my time, and especially the weather, in Orlando, when one day I opened up the International Musician, the music union’s newspaper, and saw advertised an audition for the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. It was startling; I had been dreaming about being a cellist in the Chicago Symphony for seven years, since my freshman year at Northwestern. Here was a chance, the first opening in seven years, and who knew when the next one would be. Even though I was sure I didn’t have a ghost of a chance of winning this job, a cellist in Frank Miller’s section, with Sir Georg Solti as Music Director, I decided to take the audition. I spent months preparing, practicing every spare moment, concentrating as much on the required orchestra excerpts as I did on my concerto, trying to make my sound as warm and singing as I could. To this day, 41 years later, I still remember the Personnel Manager coming down the stairs to the basement of Orchestra Hall and giving me a little salute, with the words, “you’re in.” It was the beginning of a lifetime of the most amazing musical experiences I could ever have imagined.
Inspired by the article "Links in the Chain" by my colleague Max Raimi, I am reminded of how enriched my musical training and life have been by members of the Chicago Symphony. One of the most significant influences I have had was with cellist, Theodore (Teddy) Ratzer. He lived from 1899 until 1990 and was a member of the Chicago Symphony from 1920 until 1957. I met him during my student days when I also had the good fortune to be doing a substantial amount of free-lance work in the Chicago area. Teddy was still playing his cello on almost all of the gigs in those days. He regularly played the McCormick Place Nutcracker and other ballets, but the time I spent with him as his stand-partner at the old "Mill Run Theatre" in Niles was especially significant. Already having aspirations of being a member of the Chicago Symphony, I had collected every CSO recording I could get my hands on, including the heavy old 78rpm discs!! I was fascinated by the history of the Orchestra and was brimming with questions. Teddy had countless stories of his experiences with the Orchestra and his love and devotion to being a professional orchestral musician were palpable.
I learned that he had been the very first musician "drafted" by the then-CSO Music Director, Frederick Stock, into the Chicago Symphony from the newly formed Civic Orchestra in 1920. I learned how he supplemented his income in those early days when the CSO musicians were NOT paid very well by playing for radio programs (a new invention in those days) and playing hotel gigs at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago (a recording survives of his playing in the Bismarck's resident ensemble!). He spoke most lovingly of Frederick Stock and played some of Stock's Cello Concerto for me (BY MEMORY, after over 30 years at the time). I learned of the controversial non-renewal of Artur Rodzinski's Music Directorship of the CSO that created such strong feelings in the Chicago musical community that policemen were stationed at every exit of Orchestra Hall during Rodzinski's final concert. I learned a bit about Fritz Reiner's sadistic intolerance when, due to one of Chicago's famous blizzards, the first two cellists had failed to arrive for a rehearsal and Teddy was called upon at the last minute to play a difficult solo which caused him some trouble, infuriating Reiner who delivered a blistering verbal attack. (When Teddy retired later that season after 37 years in the orchestra, Reiner sought out Teddy in the musician's locker room; Reiner complimented Teddy and, one might suppose, offered an unspoken apology for his nasty remarks during the snowstorm by saying that, as long as Reiner was Music Director at the CSO, Teddy was most welcome to return any time----an extraordinary gesture from the legendary tyrant to a loyal player and fine gentleman.) Teddy didn't go back but a decade later or so, Teddy DID continue to play substitute cello with the CSO.
I learned a great deal from Teddy, and not just CSO lore. His advice when I was practicing orchestral excerpts for auditions was invaluable and I pass it along when I coach young cellists today. As a person, he had a dignity and integrity about him that was inspirational. He was a wonderful example of how the existence of the Chicago Symphony, regardless of the concerts it plays, can inspire and make life meaningful for all.
By: Gary Stucka, CSO cellist since 1986
“Melanie! Time to play violin! Let’s go!”
I can hear my dad yelling. Looking back to the very beginning, to when I first learned “Edelweiss” and my family was still whole, that is what I remember. He is downstairs in his basement studio, calling for me to start my lesson. I am upstairs on the floor of my bedroom, playing with my Barbie dolls. My dad has been teaching me the violin for a few months now, since I turned four years old, though he disguises my lessons as a game we play together in his studio every night after dinner.
I never used to be allowed in his studio, with its teetering stacks of music, jumble of stereo equipment, and string instruments and cases of every size, spilling out across the couch and floor. But now every night I enter the inner sanctum, just like the big kids who parade through our house every weeknight from six until ten P.M., bumping up and down the stairs and scratching the walls with their cases as the strains of Vivaldi and Mozart fill the air. I like playing the violin, but I love getting to spend time with my dad and having his attention all to myself.
“Eez time for windshield wiper game,” he says, positioning my right hand on the violin bow. “Pinky curved on top. Now sweep the bow back and forth een the air, like windshield wiper. Here we go, one, two, one, two, back and forth, back and forth.”
“My pinky hurts, Daddy!”
“Just a few more, back and forth, back and forth… Eet weel make your pinky stronger! Keep going! Keep going! Okay… There, you’re done. Good girl!”
The pain is worth it. I live for those last two words.
“Melanie!” Daddy is calling again, impatient for my lesson to begin. I can still hear him, all these years later, his words echoing from the basement while my Barbie dolls stare up at me from the pink carpet. He’s anxious because we are preparing for my first solo performance, when I will play “Edelweiss,” my favorite song, at the annual spring concert. He says it that way—“ first”— as if there will, of course, be many more. My mother has arranged the music herself, penciling the notes on manuscript paper and composing a piano part, too, so that she can accompany me on the stage. Sometimes my mom and I practice together, with me on my one-quarter-size violin that we nicknamed Violet, and she on her beloved big black grand piano that seems to swallow up the whole living room.
Carefully, I put my Barbie dolls in their place on my bookshelf and slide the little black violin case from under the bed. I flip open the latches, gently grasp Violet by the neck, and unhitch the bow from its felt-lined clasp. That’s when I hear the thud. And then crying. Feet come pounding up the stairs, and at first I think that Daddy is mad at me for not coming right away when he called me. His favorite expression is “When I say jump, on the way up ask how high!” But the feet stop at the end of the hallway, at my parents’ bedroom.
Now I can hear my mother sobbing and my father trying to calm her down. His voice sounds different than usual. My father never talks like other kids’ dads. He’s loud, has a thick Ukrainian accent, and gives orders that make me, my mom, and my little sister, Stephanie, snap to attention. But now, his voice sounds… shaky. I have never heard him like this before. I creep down the darkened hallway, my feet soundless on the thick brown carpeting, and stop outside their door. It is open a crack, and I peer inside.
At first I can’t understand what I’m seeing. Something is wrong, but I’m not brave enough to push open the door to find out what. As I stand on the worn brown carpet peeking through the crack in my parents’ bedroom door and hear my mother sobbing while Daddy tries in vain to comfort her, all I can see are my mother’s legs, one shoe still on and the other lying on the floor nearby. My mother will never walk on her own again.
As time passed and I progressed as a violinist, my dad kept lining up solo performances for me. But the older I got, the more I dreaded them. I wished I could conjure up the childish fearlessness I used to have, before I was old enough to understand stress and anxiety
Orchestral playing, on the other hand, has exactly the opposite effect. It’s exhilarating. I can plug into the energy surging around me and lose myself in the music. It offers an escape from the loneliness of my practice room and the solitary pursuit of solo playing. It’s a way to connect with my fellow musicians, to become part of something greater than me.
I’m fourteen years old the first time I realize it. At an All-State Orchestra rehearsal of Wagner’s triumphant Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, just before the climactic cymbal crash near the end, I glance down to see goose bumps rising on my arms. My scalp is tingling, as if my hair is sticking straight up. When the music stops, it takes a moment before I am earthbound again. I am surprised to find myself in a folding chair in a school rehearsal room in New Jersey. I just want to keep doing this, over and over again, for the rest of my life.
Published by Hachette and recently released in Chinese translation by Penguin