Musicians compete for cellist position with the Minnesota Orchestra
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; September 17, 2004©
“I’m done!” Jessica Parker says, hoisting her cello over her head, then lowering it with an exhale of relief.
This whole day has seemed so magical to her. On the bus ride from her Uptown apartment to Orchestra Hall, the smile that never seems to leave Parker’s face grew brighter.
She thought to herself, “I’m auditioning for the Minnesota Orchestra — it seems like a dream.” Then, in the musicians’ lounge, as she waited for someone to assign her a warmup room, she pulled a notebook from her backpack and wrote “An overwhelming feeling has come to me – this is my audition day! I was always afraid to go this far – to try for this kind of thing — but I’m here, about to do it. I can’t believe it!”
The orchestra’s personnel director finds Parker in the hall and pulls her aside. Oh my gosh, Parker thinks, I advanced.
Even as her hopes are dashed, her smile remains. She takes her cello into the street with a rush of adrenaline and jogs to the hospital where her mother works. She hugs her mom and calls her husband, Ben.
He tells her, “I wish they could have seen how good you are.”
Jennifer Cox, the cellist from Cincinnati , steps from the audition room with her face a mask of white. She’s supposed to wait backstage for word on whether she’s invited to the next round, but instead trudges upstairs with her cello and purse and plunks herself onto a bench near the musicians’ lockerrooms.
“I don’t even know if I should stick around,” she mutters, her back resting against a brick wall. “I’m a lot more composed than I’ve been when I’ve choked.”
She had a feeling this wasn’t her day the minute she walked into Orchestra Hall.
The batteries on her tuning device went dead, and she could swear the cellist preparing in the next rehearsal room was mocking her through the cinderblock wall, mirroring Cox’s notes as she ran through her concerto. She’s been bullied like this before by “cello jocks,” as they’re called, and she’s fought to tune them out. Just another head trip to overcome. Then she had to stop playing three times during her audition – that’s never happened to her before.
A tall, dark-haired, young-looking man walks past, and Cox’s eyes narrow as she watches him hop down the steps. She blurts out a dark laugh and shakes her head. She’s seen this guy at so many other auditions she’s come to regard him as a nemesis.
The orchestra’s personnel director approaches and pulls her aside. She whispers to Cox that she’s sorry, but she won’t be asked back to the second round. Cox forces a smile and shakes her hand with a “thank you.”
She wants to call her boyfriend and her dad. These are going to be tough phone calls. Her mother judges each disappointment as another sign she should find another path.
She walks across the street to Brit’s Pub, takes her cell phone from her purse and dials her father.
“In a way, I feel fine about it, like almost blasé,” she tells him. “What’s hard is telling you I didn’t advance.”
Cox listens to her father for a moment. Her eyes begin filling with tears, and her hand slowly reaches up to her face.
“You are?” she says, a smile breaking through her tears. “Tell me again.”
Her father repeats his words – he’s proud of her and always will be. A slight moan escapes Cox’s mouth as she wipes the burden of her day away from her cheek.
“That really helps so much,” she says. “Please, tell me one more time.”
DOWN TO THE WIRE
The competition began with 56 cellists. After two days, the field had narrowed to 15. A day later, there were five. Now, on the afternoon of the fourth day, there are just two. Arek Tesarczyk is still standing.
The other finalist, a young Italian who will be called Roberto, doesn’t want his name used for fear of compromising other musical relationships. He’s a contrast to Tesarczyk in every discernible respect — a demonstrative performer with a model’s looks and experience on both coasts, primarily in revered touring quartets and other small ensembles. He’s only in his late 20s, with no family to consider in his career moves.
Osmo Vanska, the orchestra’s music director, steps into the process for the first time, joining the rest of the audition committee behind tables set to one side of the Orchestra Hall stage. While the committee members will cast secret ballots for the cellists of their choice, Vanska can choose whether to go with the committee’s collective recommendation. As Tesarczyk learned in Montreal , there’s no guarantee the orchestra will hire either finalist.
Vanska scans the resumes of the two remaining cellists.
“Sometimes you wish someone would just jump out at you,” Tony Ross, the orchestra’s principal cellist, tells Vanska.
“Let’s be thankful we have so many interested in the position,” Vanska says.
“We still have four minutes,” Vanska says. “So what is the joke of the day?”
“Does anyone know the two positions of viola?” Ross asks. “First and emergency.”
Everyone gets a laugh at that.
Tesarczyk is the first finalist to walk in, and the hall grows so silent, you can hear the hum of the stage lighting above. The cellist girds his square jaw, closes his eyes and digs into the Dvorak Cello Concerto.
Committee members must have heard three dozen versions of this over the past week, but in Tesarczyk, they hear something different. While his notes are smooth and flawless, he performs them with the assuredness of a seasoned, styled soloist.
He moves into his excerpts, using the time between one and the next to wipe his brow with the blue terry-cloth towel he keeps draped over his left knee.
Vanska stops him in the middle of one excerpt and asks him to play it softer. He interrupts another excerpt to ask for a louder fortissimo.
“I want to see where your edge is,” he says.
“And those quarter notes,” Ross says. “Did you really mean to accent them?”
Tesarczyk pauses to think, and then draws laughs when he says “Only if you think I should have.”
The personnel director emerges from the hall and calls Tesarczyk out of the lounge. She whispers to him, and Tesarczyk smiles but sags. The committee wants to see both him and Roberto again, asking each to rehearse and perform one week’s program.
The limbo will carry from the fall all the way to separate weeks in the spring, when the cellists will work as part of the orchestra, auditioning under Vanska’s eye and the pressure of real concerts.
RIGHT PEG FOR THE HOLE
Six months have passed since Tesarczyk first auditioned, and now the audition committee wants to see how well he blends into the ensemble. Ross likens the task to that of Latrell Sprewell when he joined the Minnesota Timberwolves — a one-time star asked to play a supporting role with his new team.
Roberto has already gone through his audition week, rehearsing and performing under Vanska’s baton, and now Tesarczyk is doing the same. He’s rehearsed for two days in relative anonymity. To the rest of the orchestra, he’s simply another substitute pulled from the pool of professional cellists in the community. Only the other cellists in the orchestra know what’s at stake.
Before Tesarczyk left Winnipeg for the week in Minneapolis , his colleagues in the orchestra wished him the worst of luck. It was only in half-jest — they don’t want him to leave. But Tesarczyk can’t help it — he’s already feeling at home here. Just this afternoon, he walked to the Target on Nicollet Mall and bought his daughter a ballerina dress.
Most of the musicians haven’t even arrived for the night’s concert, but Tesarczyk has already changed into his tuxedo. He steps into the hall with his cello and finds his seat near the lip of the stage, two rows behind where Ross will sit. Peter Lloyd, the principal bassist, comes up from behind Tesarczyk, places a hand on his shoulder and asks if he’s comfortable.
“Oh, yeah. Great,” Tesarczyk says.
“Well, it’s a great cello section,” Lloyd says.
During the concert, it’s as if Tesarczyk belongs. He performs with gusto and sensitivity, and at least once, his stand partner, Pitnarry Shin, glances his way and smiles. Ultimately, this is why they’re all here, to share in the joy of performance.
The audition committee reaches a pivotal decision — it has eliminated Roberto from the competition and left only Tesarczyk in consideration. Still, the job isn’t yet his. The orchestra wants to see him again, this time for two weeks of rehearsals and concerts. The committee wants to hear him work with a greater variety of music, see more of his ensemble skills and give him a better chance to acclimate with the rest of the section.
“We’re deciding whether to get married to somebody, so I don’t think we’re being overly cautious,” says Janet Horvath, the associate principal cellist. “Let’s see how this relationship would really work.”
Tesarczyk’s return visit has come in a flash, and there are moments he’s forgotten he’s auditioning.
After Friday’s concert heading into Memorial Day weekend, the audition committee meets for the final time. Vanska is the last to enter the room, and his first question is “Does this have to be a long meeting?”
Minutes later, the personnel director phones Tesarczyk in his hotel room — the orchestra is offering him the job. Tesarczyk calls home, and his wife seems more excited than he does. Within minutes, he’s emailing friends and family around the world.
With nothing on the line, Saturday’s concert rings with the fanfare of a season finale. After the final bow, several musicians head across the street to a dinner reception at Vincent’s Restaurant. Tesarczyk opens a card signed by all the orchestra’s cellists — “It’s been a long, long climb. You deserve a mountain of praise.”
“I’ll buy your first beer,” a musician tells Tesarczyk as she steps to the bar.
Ross puts his hand on the shoulder of his new colleague.
“I hope you didn’t lose patience,” Ross says.
“I feel like I’ve already been here five years,” Tesarczyk says.
Ross gives a slight chuckle and says, “We all wanted a happy ending.”