choose me: the florida orchestra

All Ears: Pay no attention to the band behind the curtain.By Eric Snider

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Sometime in October, a woman will walk to center stage at the Mahaffey Theater, hoping to land the job of principal flutist for the Florida Orchestra. Her pathway will be carpeted, so in case she's wearing pumps, the click-click of high heels won't give away her gender. In all likelihood, several dozen other flutists will be on hand that day, all auditioning for the position. She'll have practiced the classical excerpts the orchestra sent her in advance, buffing them to perfection. She'll have paid her way to St. Pete. No doubt she'll be nervous.

The flutist will look out from the stage and a few rows back she'll see a curtain hung on poles. Behind it will sit seven Florida Orchestra musicians, pens in hand, ears primed, ready to decide her fate and that of the other aspirants. The flutist will play, alone, for as much as 10 minutes. If she does exceptionally well, better than most of the others, she may be asked to perform during a second round, against the eight or nine or 11 who remain. With another stellar performance, she could make the final two or three. In that instance, she may perform with other flutists in the orchestra. Music director Stefan Sanderling will join the other judges for the final.

After an exhausting marathon, where votes are cast and the merits of musicians discussed, the audition committee will choose its new principal flutist.

The Florida Orchestra has two other auditions slated for October — one for principal second violin and one for principal oboe — and each will follow the same arduous, ritualistic guidelines with one primary intent: to make the selection process as fair and impartial as possible.

The orchestra spreads the word about its auditions through ads in trade journals, e-mails to conservatory placement offices and such. But it does not pre-screen resumes: Anyone who pays a nominal fee and can make it to the audition is allowed to try out (and be reimbursed the fee if they show up).

"It's like a cattle call," says Richard Sparrow, a horn player in the orchestra for 20 years who's judged five auditions. "You really don't want to exclude people. You can't get the whole story from a resumé or even a tape. You have to have that interaction."

Placing the panel behind a curtain in at least the first round is standard practice in the symphony world. It's the best way there is to boil the selection process down to pure musicianship. "We want to make sure the committee members have no prejudgments," says David Rogers, the orchestra's artistic administrator. "In this business, musicians might know some of the candidates, or have played with them before. It's the best method we have to level the playing field."

Even so, it's not perfect. "It's a good start," Sparrow says. "It's effective in the preliminary rounds. But ultimately, a musician has to spend some time inside the group before you can accurately judge all of the musical aspects and their personality."

Fall Arts 2006: Choose Me

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