Week 15 – Beethoven’s Blog

Posted on August, 12th 2021

My audition story of the Chicago Symphony:

Imagine what it’s like to be sitting in a great orchestra playing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – a piece of music that is so powerful and emotional. Have you ever wondered how does a person get to be in a great orchestra? I thought I would describe the process to you this week.

When an opening occurs in an orchestra, there’s an advertisement placed in the musician’s union newspaper, advising to the musical world that a position has become vacant. You sign up to appear and then you practice your butt off and get in “as good as possible instrumental shape” as you can. You show up on the appointed day and are taken to a warmup room and are subsequently told to follow someone upstairs to the stage. Using my audition for the Chicago Symphony as an example, you then walk along a carpeted path on the stage. It’s carpeted so that the orchestra audition committee that’s listening to you, cannot tell if you’re a male or female by your gait. There is a screen erected across the front of the stage so that the audition committee cannot recognize you. Trying to eliminate favoritism, sexism, nepotism, ageism, or other isms is very important these days and rightly so. You are then asked to perform a couple of concerto movements followed by excerpts from the orchestra repertory followed by reading of orchestra excerpts that you might not have seen before. This process only takes 15 minutes or so for they are trying to whittle down the number of applicants to a manageable level. Once again, in my case there were 200 applicants for the one position in the viola section that was vacant. In my case, it was narrowed down to two candidates. Finalists are then asked to return for another round of playing. This round is much longer. They listen to more of the concertos and they demand more difficult excerpts from the orchestra literature. So what does this all have to do with the Eroica Symphony? Well, one orchestra excerpt that is invariably asked on viola auditions is the opening of the Eroica Symphony’s Third Movement, the Scherzo. Why would this be asked for? Beethoven marks the opening as pianissimo, very soft. There are also dots above every note meaning very short. It’s also very fast, three notes to a bar, Allegro Vivace very fast. It’s difficult to do all this and it’s difficult to control your bow, especially when you’re nervous. As you play along, all of a sudden you’re asked by Beethoven to go from pianissimo to fortissimo, the extremes of the dynamic range of an instrument, in the space of one bar or three notes – very difficult to do. Beethoven was very demanding. He didn’t care if it was difficult; he knew what he wanted musically and therefore you had to do it. There are many more reasons why this excerpt would be included. The rhythm isn’t always the easiest thing to accomplish, e.g.  there’s a place where it changes from three to a bar to four to a bar and it feels very unnatural if you haven’t played it before. All the while, great delicacy juxtaposed with power and intensity, must be shown while under great pressure. This is what the great Beethoven required of us. We must live up to him with all we have.

The Trio section of this 3rd movement is on every French Horn player’s audition. One listen and you’ll hear why,

As in the past two weeks, let’s turn to Leonard Bernstein for his wonderful explanation of these two final movements. I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring this monumental and extraordinary Third Symphony of Beethoven.

3rd Movement (from 5:00):

4th movement (from 10:18):

4th movement continued: