This is part 2 of a guest post by double bassist Jean-Yves Bénichou. You can read part 1 of Benjy’s post here. Benjy is bi-national, being a citizen of both the United States and France. He has lived in France for the past 30 years and has been a member of the Strasbourg Philharmonic since 1985. He studied double bass at Temple University with Edward Arian and at Yale University with Homer Mensch, as well as additional studies with Roger Scott and François Rabbath.
Last May 23rd, I auditioned for the same job I had been holding for the past year, that of temporary assistant principle. In our contract, there is a special clause stating that after 15 years of occupying a certain chair, you can retrograde, (move back into the section), WITHOUT loss of pay. This is a clause destined primarily for wind players, whose chops let loose after a number of years, and are replaced by younger performers. This clause can also be applicable for strings players. Thus, one of our 2 assistant principles decided to put the law into effect and asked me if I was interested in taking over his seat until a future retirement from one of our colleagues. I accepted and was financially promoted. Since I had already served as assistant principle for 5 years 10 years ago, no audition was set up. (I had played the Lieutenant Kijé solo during that time.) The only factor that was needed to keep this job would be to present myself for an official audition; otherwise I would lose my monthly bonus. If I would have sat around and not done anything, I would automatically have moved onto the 5 string bass bonus, one which pays 70€ (94$) less. So I tried my luck. This time (unlike last time) I would play for as many people as possible and try to keep the job, in spite of my age of 54. There is no age limit here in Europe for such auditions. That’s cool when you think about it. Obviously, I was the first to know the date 4 months in advance and started seriously practicing.
The day of the audition finally arrived. I took my usual 6 min drive to work whereas there were people from Paris, Germany, Switzerland and of course France. We were 15 candidates and I was the oldest. How much of a chance did I have I thought? Back in 85 auditions, would take place behind the screen, and then for the 3rd round, the screen was removed. Now, all rounds are behind screen. Back in 85 I was younger, unconscious of my daily problems, desperate to get a job. Here, I was already in the group, friends with everyone. The other candidates were younger, had practically no experience in comparison to my 22 years of playing everything under the sun.
During the past the season as Assistant Principle, I had played Principle at least 5 times, leading the section. Our conductor was very happy with me, and so were my stand partners. I had gained much experience from the Chamber Orchestra as a Solo and only bassist. I know for a fact that playing in front of 2000-4000 people can stimulate your performing abilities. Now I was just another auditionee in the inevitable but necessary competition. No one can go against the law and there was no way I was going to keep the job forever. The last time my “temporary” job lasted 5 years; this time, one.
Upon entering our rehearsal hall to which I am so accustomed to, I was greeted by a wall of plywood screens for one end to the other. I could feel the presence of my friends and fellow bassists on the other side. How could I undergo this and prove myself? No matter what I would do, everything would be under a microscope with no live audience to play along with and not for.
I played as best as possible but was eliminated after the first round along with 9 others. For the second and final rounds, I sat waiting for the jury’s decision. I seriously thought that they would take someone, but I was wrong. This was a job for an assistant principle- no rank and file stuff. None of the 3 finalists could make the required grade. Indirectly, I was the only winner at the end, since they didn’t take anyone! I was later commended by other bassists and non bassists in the orchestra for having tried my luck. I don’t think that I’ll be auditioning again for the same job on Oct. 2nd, I’ll prefer to be on the other side the screen next time.
Similar experiences have occurred with other very fine players who want to move up the ladder in the same orchestra, yet are eliminated right after the first round. How ironic it is that orchestras have to officially seek what they already have. The audition process is a necessary evil for all of us, but it is a democratic one. In England, you are “on trial” for a period of 3 months and then they decide whether to keep you or not in a committee. It’s a bit more human, but can also create an argument for favouritism.
Finally, there is an anecdote about Yo-Yo Ma who decided just for fun to audition for the Boston Symphony in order to prove how the system of juries and auditions can be. He was apparently eliminated after the first round. This story may or may not be true, but it does prove a point. We and our audience know who we are and don’t need a jury to confirm it.
The technical progress of sound reproduction has forced us into becoming digitalized instrumentalists. On a recording, any wrong note can now be masterfully corrected and we attend concerts expecting to hear performing artists play the same way they do on their CDs. Our playing and way of thinking is following the same trend of perfection; 60 years ago auditioning was less of an ordeal than it is now. It is no surprise that we are more attracted to the old archives of great players. Music is an audible art but nevertheless has to stay human.