How can the San Francisco Symphony get even better?

The San Francisco Symphony is a great orchestra, and doing nearly everything right, so I probably don’t have much useful advice to offer, but there are a few areas that maybe they could make some changes for the better.

Audition process – final stages

First, here’s my understanding of the current audition process:

  1. Post the audition notice on their website and in union bulletins etc.
  2. Review submitted resumes (typically 150 or so). Invite some to the audition (maybe 30); others, request a tape to review before inviting to audition. (Few are ever chosen from this latter group.)
  3. Start audition process, round one. Candidates pay their way to come to the auditions. These are blind auditions: Committee is behind a screen in the hall so can’t see the candidate. Candidate doesn’t speak, and there’s carpet to walk on on the stage so their shoes can’t be identified by sound. Music is mostly selected orchestral excerpts. (The list is published in advance.) About half are eliminated in each round.
  4. Invite (recruit) a few selected musicians they already know about. They get to skip the first round or two of auditions.
  5. When it gets to the final round – say the last 2-3 candidates, the auditions become non-blind. The screen comes down, the committee knows who each candidate is for the first time, and they can see and converse with each other. But the format otherwise stays the same.

It’s this last round that I would change. Now that it’s non-blind, why keep the same “solo” format? First, it may be useful to sit down with them, like a normal interview. But more useful, I think, would be playing together with existing Symphony musicians in ensemble. Here are the formats I’d propose:

  • Mini sectional. Play the same orchestral excerpts, only now with several other members of the same section. Also use a conductor. You want to see how they fit in, blend, keep up, follow, adapt – but also how they lead, contribute, and make the group better.
  • Mini chamber ensemble. More orchestra excerpts, again with a conductor, but now with members of several related sections, but one player to a part. Essentially a string quartet or wind or brass quintet, playing orchestra and chamber orchestra repertory.
  • Actual chamber music. Play real string quartets, wind quintets, brass quintets. No conductor. Now you see what they think about the music, how they communicate and collaborate. Also, chamber music is a big deal for the Symphony (as it should be), so make sure they are in tune with that.

This would be followed by a two-week trial for one or two of the candidates (which I believe already happens).

At any rate, the goal is to find out how well the candidate fits in with the orchestra (while hopefully bringing in new strengths), how well they collaborate and how much existing musicians enjoy sitting next to and playing together with them.

Some other considerations for auditions:

  1. Always try to hire candidates that are better than the musicians presently in the orchestra. If you were to guess that the candidate would be below average among their section, don’t hire them.
  2. Always favor talent over experience. The latter is easy to acquire with the passage of time. Improvement in the former is far less likely.

More chamber music – preconcert concerts instead of lectures

I believe playing chamber music is a great way to improve the quality of an orchestra. It challenges musicians with interesting music, it totally exposes them so there’s nowhere to hide, and the musicians love it: it’s fun. So it’s a good way to attract and retain good musicians.

The SFS already has a chamber music series of a dozen or so concerts. It has also experimented with pre-concert concerts (chamber music, chorus, etc.) before regular concerts, in place of the usual “get to know the music” lecture. The one time I saw this, I really liked it. I’d like to see this become a regular practice – chamber music, solo sonatas, etc., with the lectures only used for certain series with a more educational/first-timer focus. The rest of the lectures should go online, where they belong.

Davies turns out to be a surprisingly wonderful venue for chamber music, and these mini-concerts could help advertise their regular chamber music series, while giving the musicians more opportunities to play music they like, the way they like it, and to feature individual musicians more than the full Symphony concerts allow.

More opera – summer opera residency? Exchange program with SF Opera?

Opera is another area I think the Symphony could play more of. Not because I love opera necessarily – if so I’d just go to the SF Opera. No, the reason is again to improve their symphony concerts. Opera is a different and wonderful (and often challenging) repertoire they seldom get to play. But more to the point are two factors, both of which could make an orchestra better:

  1. Opera is mainly accompaniment of solo singers. Doing a lot of this can lead to increased sensitivity and subtlety.
  2. On the other hand, opera is dramatic, and being in the presence of melodrama, sets, costumes, colored lights, and loud bangs can fend off inhibition.
The Symphony could do a summer opera production (possibly at some outdoor location, the way Boston and Chicago go to a countryside festival in the summer). They could do more semi-staged operas during the season. Or they could start a program where Symphony and Opera musicians could trade places for a couple of weeks during the year.

More TV/video

I do like that the Symphony continues to make CDs – they remain more important for classical  audiences than pop listeners – but this isn’t the key to success it once was.

As for television, I love the PBS broadcasts they do, and would love to see more.

But I’d also like to see them find other ways to get their concerts on TV – or internet streaming – regularly, at lower cost.

I think there’s something about being on TV that increases their confidence and makes them more pleasing to watch. They play to the camera (and, if done enough, they might habitually play to the camera even when cameras are not present). This, I think, is what makes the Berlin Philharmonic such fun yo watch: they’re used to being on television.

Also, they tend to spiff up their appearance – after thinking “I look so unkempt or dowdy or pale on TV”, they’re going to pay more attention to their (and their colleagues’) appearance. Which makes sense, seeing as they’re performing musicians where the audience’ attention is focused on them.

But besides regular concert videos and “Great Performances” specials, what I’d love to see them do is a behind-the-scenes reality series on Discovery, Ovation or Bravo. Something like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, or the ones about navigating container ships or building skyscrapers. This could follow the musicians and staff of the orchestra as the prepare for concerts, recordings, tours, auditions, etc.

Even more prominently, they could also host a competitive reality show, like a mix of American Idol and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra – perhaps a concerto competition for young conservatory graduates to perform with the Symphony on tour?

So those are some of my ideas for ways the SF Symphony might be able to improve even more.

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