Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
Sunday, October 8,
Help Wanted: Elite
The L.A. Philharmonic has
filled a dozen openings by putting hopefuls through a rigorous audition
By JOHN HENKEN
Shulman, L.A. Philharmonic Principal Cellist, at his
home in the Santa Monica Mountains.
election year, some pundit inevitably labels the U.S. Senate the "world's
most exclusive club." But major U.S. cities have clubs of similar size
that are even tougher to get into--their symphony orchestras.
Certainly the talent-and-training bar
appears to be much higher in an orchestra. But while the qualifications
may seem more objective, ultimately the symphonic hopeful is chosen by the
same elusive standard as the political candidate--be the one we want.
An unusually large number of Los Angeles
Philharmonic members have been recently elected, due mostly to
retirements. The ensemble that just launched the new season has a lot of
new faces. The orchestra has filled 12 positions--more than 10% of the
work force--since the end of the 1998-99 season, bringing close to 1,000
auditioning hopefuls to Los Angeles.
Newest of the Philharmonic newbies is
principal cellist Andrew Shulman. His first concert with the orchestra was
just a week ago, a preseason community event in Pasadena, with music
director Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium. A mainstay of the London music
scene for the past two decades and a British citizen, he has been solo
cellist for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Philharmonia,
and was cellist of the much-recorded Britten String Quartet for 10 years.
In 1990, Shulman won the Piatigorsky
Artist Award, a prestigious invitational competition at the New England
Conservatory of Music, which carries attendant teaching and recital
engagements. He has also been developing a parallel career as a conductor,
and anticipates returning regularly to Europe to work with orchestras in
Ireland, England and Scandinavia.
all of that, the move to Los Angeles is hardly a provincial retreat. The
Los Angeles Philharmonic's reputation in Europe, Shulman says, "is very
high, very fine." He is talking by phone amid moving-in debris at his new
house in Topanga Canyon.
Philharmonic has a stability a lot of other American orchestras don't
have," he says, explaining why a Brit might uproot his family and move to
America's West Coast. "Esa-Pekka has a real vision of what the orchestra
should be. He has a good relationship with the orchestra, so you don't
have the politics and shenanigans you get in other orchestras."
Shulman comes by his talent naturally
enough; his father was a double bass player and his mother was an opera
singer. He began piano lessons in a desultory fashion when he was 6,
before starting the cello at age 10.
chose cello partly because my father could help me with it, but there was
also something about the sound of the cello. Its range is that of a human
voice and it seemed more natural to me than violin. Once I got hooked on
cello, that was it."
He was also hooked
on orchestras. At 19, straight out of the Royal College of Music, he
joined the Halle Orchestra. About a year later he became solo cello with
the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Academy of St. Martin in the
Fields. Then, at 22, he became solo cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra.
He devoted seven years full time to the Britten Quartet, but reenlisted in
orchestra playing in 1994 when "the Philharmonia made me an offer I
couldn't refuse to come back."
he has played concertos and recitals throughout his career, he has no
reservations about his preference for orchestral playing over solo work.
"It's the repertoire, definitely,"
Shulman, now 40, says. "At an early age, I devoured scores. I've always
been interested in orchestration and structure, which is why I am now
doing more conducting. There is nothing I enjoy more than getting into the
style of a composer and the shape of a piece of music."
Shulman met Salonen through his work
with the Philharmonia, where the conductor has been a regular guest. It
was Salonen who invited him to apply for the principal cello chair here.
"I think the Philharmonic got to the
stage in the auditions where they had not found anyone whom everyone could
agree on. I've known Esa-Pekka a long time, and he suggested I come. I
came and played with the orchestra for a week and I enjoyed the atmosphere
"Interestingly, Esa-Pekka is
very different with the two orchestras, a very different personality.
Which says a lot about him, that he can adapt to and is sensitive to the
instrument he is conducting.
"It was a
long process then, bringing my family over to check out schools and
houses. We're very pleased to be here now."
As a result of those visits, Shulman,
his wife and two children settled in Topanga, allowing them to indulge a
passion for dogs and walking. He is also "just getting into surfing."
"We were looking for something not too
cityish," Shulman says. "It is a bit of a commute, but I did something
similar in England, driving in from the country."
"I have known Andrew since 1983,"
Salonen says. "Before I picked up the phone and called him, I thought,
'Maybe he has done London now, maybe he is ready for a change.' It seems I
"He is very versatile, very
warm and passionate in his approach to his instrument and to music-making.
We are pleased to see how easily he has fit in. Very clearly, the
personality dynamic here is good."
* * * The process of filling
jobs at the Philharmonic always begins with an advertisement in the
International Musician, the monthly paper of the musicians' union. The
applications pour in--usually hundreds for each position--and the
Philharmonic's Auditions and Renewals Committee culls the pile to 40 to
150 candidates for each opening who are invited to audition here.
"We used to do taped applications as
well, but no longer, just because with technology now it is so easy to
mess with recordings," says Gail Samuels, the Philharmonic's orchestra
manager. "The preliminary [rounds are] played from behind a screen,
without the music director present. The players are usually asked for a
bit of a concerto and a lot of excerpts [from specific works in the
expanded with members of the pertinent section, then votes on advancing
the player to a semifinal round, which is also played anonymously--the
better to ensure equal opportunity.
the final round, however, all is revealed.
"The screen comes down and the music
director comes in," says Samuels. "People play much longer here, maybe 15
to 20 minutes. There is discussion, of course, and then the committee
votes to qualify one or more of the finalists, and then the music director
chooses. He can also invite them to play with the orchestra for a week.
Everyone's goal is to get the best player."
If the fit isn't right, as happened in
the search for a principal cellist, more proactive recruiting takes place.
"We basically felt that the kind of people we were interested in would
have to be invited," Salonen says. "Obviously, in real-life situations,
you can't ask experienced and busy artists such as this to come and play
behind a curtain. They come and play with the orchestra for a week, maybe
give a recital."
The experience of
Tamara Thweatt, a piccolo player who started her Philharmonic career in
July with the beginning of the Hollywood Bowl season, is more typical. A
recent graduate of the doctoral music program at the University of
Michigan and a freelancer in the Flint and Ann Arbor symphonies, she
spotted the ad in the union paper, sent in her resume, and was one of 100
chosen to begin the auditions.
Philharmonic has a wonderful policy of inviting many people to come," she
says. "I flew to Los Angeles at my own expense to take the
audition--fortunately, I have a sister who lives in Pasadena. The
auditions were played in four rounds over two days, taking us from 100 to
20 to seven to four players. Everyone was very professional and kind--I
always had a room to warm up in.
end I was really tired and hungry, but it was so amazing. I have been
auditioning for about eight years, seeking a job in a full-time orchestra,
basically applying anywhere there was a position open. How honored I am,
being in such a wonderful place, with such an orchestra!"
Thweatt may not come to the Philharmonic
with the same level of orchestral experience that Shulman does, but she
shares his reasons for choosing the symphonic life.
"The repertoire is just so beautiful.
The piccolo doesn't play all the time, and I enjoy just listening. It is
so lovely, being right there in the middle of a group with so many colors,
so much wonderful playing."
* * * In addition to Shulman
and Thweatt, other newcomers to the Philharmonic over the past season
include violinists Chao-Hua Jin, Akiko Tarumoto and Jonathan Wei; violist
Hui Liu; cellists David Garrett and Brent Samuel; bassist David Allen
Moore; oboist Anne Marie Gabriele; French horn player Bruce Hudson; and
associate principal trombone James Miller. Still open is the principal
trumpet chair and, with the recent retirement of pianist Zita Carno, the
"It is unique in the
Philharmonic history--and for almost any orchestra--to add this many new
players," Salonen says. "The standard is very high in this country. There
are some really fantastic people out there, so in that sense it was very
"It is an interesting
balance. When a young player comes to an orchestra, the process usually is
that they adjust their style to fit in. But when hiring, I also try to
imagine what they can add, how they can continue in our tradition but also
contribute new energy. The change in an orchestra is gradual over time, an
organic development, but change is necessary. An orchestra has to be
constantly self-critical and evolving."
With a Hollywood Bowl season behind her,
Thweatt already knows something about fitting into her Philharmonic role.
"At the beginning in July, the pace of
things was very challenging, having only one rehearsal per concert," she
says. "But I was sent all the music ahead of time, and the librarians and
other musicians were all extremely helpful. I got tired midway through,
but I also learned so much in so short a time. It has given me a lot of
confidence for the fall season.'
Shulman, with the depth of his
experience, will be expected to take a leadership role right from the
start. In addition to playing the solo parts that come along and more
mundane tasks such as enforcing common bowing patterns, section principals
such as Shulman must take much of the responsibility for creating and
maintaining the signature sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he
defines as having "definite warmth, like European orchestras, but also
more precision and depth."
"For some of
the key positions, we have to consider not only instrumental skills, but
also personality and leadership," Salonen says. "Auditions are more
complicated than just listening. In particular, to find somebody to
succeed [retired principal cellist] Ron Leonard, who is such a great
musician and so respected by all the orchestra, it is a weighty decision.
Out of all the people we invited, we thought Andrew made the best solo
"I consider my job more to
create an atmosphere and a sound that people can play into and contribute
100%," Shulman says. "You have to have a vision of what you want the
section to sound like."
John Henken Is a Regular Contributor to
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times