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Blowing their own horns Add to ...

The star attraction of next Wednesday's Toronto Symphony concert is French pianist Hélène Grimaud, playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. But a little further upstage, away from the spotlights, a drama will be unfolding in the orchestra's horn section.

It all began in mid-April, when 35 French-horn players came to Toronto to audition for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. And it's a very serious business.

They were men and women, young and not-so-young, some just out of university, some established professionals with positions in respected orchestras. They came from Canada, Mexico, Germany and Japan, but mostly from the United States, to honk their horns in a marathon two-day session at Roy Thomson Hall -- with the chair of principal French horn in the TSO as the first and only prize.

"There are two types of auditions at the TSO," explains Ginny Scott, the orchestra's personnel co-ordinator. "First we have auditions for Canadians and landed immigrants, but if we don't find someone we want, we hold an international round. We held Canadian auditions for principal horn last year, and 10 people played, but the committee didn't select anyone."

In North America, the appointment of a new member of a professional symphony orchestra is a complicated process, full of protocols and safeguards intended to ensure that the selection is fair. Good orchestra jobs come up only rarely, and it's been decades since the TSO last searched for a principal horn: Fredrick Rizner held the job for 39 years, before retiring last year to Eastern Ontario, to start an antique business.

It's also a secretive process, from which the public and media have traditionally been barred. Orchestra management and especially the musicians' union are uneasy about outside observers, at a time when nerves are tense and reputations are on the line. And never before has a journalist been allowed into a TSO audition. But in the spirit of orchestral glasnost, an exception is made.

So here's how it works. On the first day, after drawing lots to decide the order of performance, the hopefuls enter the hall one by one, to play for a jury of TSO members: On this occasion, two hornists, two trombonists, a trumpeter, a bassoonist, a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. Each auditioning musician plays from a list of orchestral excerpts -- difficult solos by Brahms, Strauss, Ravel and others -- and has a mere 10 minutes to impress the jury.

But the musicians can't see the jury, nor can the jury see them: A large folding screen is erected in the hall, with the jury on one side of it, and the auditioning players on the other. The auditioners do not speak, and are identified only by their numbers. In fact, so carefully is their anonymity protected that a carpet runner is laid out across the stage for the players to walk on to prevent the jurors from somehow identifying them by the sound of their shoes.

The adjudicators silently scribble notes during the auditions, and during coffee breaks they gather in little groups to discuss what they've heard. "I'm looking for intonation and accuracy," says one juror. "I just don't want a boring principal horn," adds another. "I'm saving my big musical judgments for tomorrow," remarks a third. "Today I'm just seeing who can play and who can't."

Of the 35 auditioners, 28 play on the first day. From the jury's standpoint, the process is repetitive, even tedious. But it could be more so: Initially about 140 hornists expressed interest in the job, when it was advertised, but only those who were seriously interested showed up. "If this were Chicago, or even Detroit," suggests violinist and jury-member Jacques Israelievitch, "we might have 200 people." No doubt financial considerations are at work here, as Canadian orchestras don't pay as well as their American counterparts.

Only five hornists are invited back for a second round the next day. As well, seven musicians who are already well-known to the jurors, including two members of the TSO's own horn section looking to move up to the top job, are added to the mix. For this round, TSO maestro Peter Oundjian joins the jury: He doesn't vote, exactly, but his opinion carries weight, and he can veto jury decisions.

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