Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He’s put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly, and shut down his personal life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a Boston Symphony Orchestra selection committee. A single mistake and it’s over. A flawless performance and he could join one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.
One reason there were two openings rather than just one at the BSO was the retirement of percussionist Frank Epstein, who joined the orchestra in 1968 at the age of 26, which was then considered extremely young. Most members back then had at least five years’ experience with an orchestra before making it to Boston.
After more than four decades with the BSO, retirement crept up on Epstein. He’d begun thinking about it in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he finally got tired of fighting the pain he felt while performing — it moved through his feet and knees, up to his wrists and shoulders. His last two concerts that year looked perfectly programmed for a percussionist’s farewell — one, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Tanglewood, the other, Berlioz’s Requiem at Symphony Hall. But the Beethoven concert was canceled because of Hurricane Irene. And then a conductor fell ill and the Berlioz program was changed to an evening of Mozart, meaning Epstein wouldn’t be needed.
Epstein has visited Symphony Hall only once since his 2011 season, and for just one piece, the premiere of John Harbison’s Sixth Symphony. “I haven’t gone to a concert, because I couldn’t bring myself to go back to that,” he says. “I still need the space. I couldn’t stand it if someone picked up the cymbals and didn’t do a good job. It kind of terrifies me.”
Some of that may simply be professional pride, but some of it may reflect his belief that younger musicians are moving the music in new directions. Epstein says the current audition process rewards a different kind of player. There used to be at least a little room for flair while auditioning, he says. Back when he went before the judges, he got creative and performed a piece he’d composed for bass drum and cymbals.
These days, he says, “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players. Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”
And the audition process isn’t the final time a musician finds himself judged. A player who wins an audition is put on a one-year probation period. At the end of that year, the committee that hired him reconvenes to evaluate his performance and vote on whether to award tenure. From September 1980 to March 2010, the BSO held 119 auditions, and more than 90 percent of the musicians hired from them wound up receiving tenure.
“No one wants to go through a probation trial period and not give the guy tenure,” Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, says. “You want to avoid that. That’s why the audition is almost sacred — it’s almost a sacred ritual.”