Many of you probably know about, or are perhaps even part of, couples who work at the same business. You may also know about couples who work in the same group or department at said business. Symphony orchestras are no different in that regard, including the one based here. A blog post this week from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch illustrates this point, c/o the classical critic Sarah Bryan Miller, from the “Culture Club” blog here:
“Big changes are coming to the viola section of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: the SLSO has announced the appointments of three players.One might think “no big deal”, except that if you know how orchestra players get their jobs, this situation becomes kind of interesting to wonder about (if hardly without precedent in human history). More below the flip…..
One of them will up the number of married couples in the orchestra to seven: Jonathan Chu, the just-named assistant principal viola, is married to principal viola Beth Guterman Chu.”
Miller has a decently high-level summary explanation of how the orchestra audition process works from this article earlier this year about the gender proportions in the St. Louis Symphony:
"Since the mid-1970s, orchestra musicians have usually played the preliminary rounds of auditions from behind a screen, so that race and gender aren’t obvious. They walk on a long strip of carpet, so the clacking of high-heeled shoes doesn’t give anything away. It’s made a big difference in merit hiring."So in principle, the audition process should not bias against or for anyone based on gender or race, or any other surface attribute. But it does make one think about what transpired in this particular circumstance, looking back after the whole process has been completed, given the family connection between the new assistant principal viola and the principal viola. For the record, the official Symphony announcement about the appointment of the three new violists does not mention the family connection at all. But it does allude to a complicating factor in the story, in the opening to Jonathan Chu’s biography:
"Jonathan Chu has been a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra viola section since the start of the 2013-2014 season."In parallel, Beth Guterman Chu has been with the St. Louis Symphony since January 2013, the midst of the 2012-2013 season. So in other words, for some time, BGC and JC have had to deal with a long-distance marriage, complicated by the fact that they have a kid. In that context, it makes perfect sense that one partner would want to try to get a job in the same city as the other. But if you’re a classical musician, then the number of professional institutions in that regard in any area (even NYC) is extremely limited. In the case of St. Louis, in terms of a large classical music institution, there’s pretty much only one option.
Also, given current market economics, there are many, many, many more trained classical musicians than there are orchestras to absorb them. It’s not too much of a guess to imagine that the SLSO got hundreds of applications, from all over the country, for the 3 open viola positions. And it’s perfectly possible that all 3 eventual winners auditioned, in effect, for any of the 3 open positions, with one of them just happening to be the assistant principal viola, which is in effect the 3rd in command post in any given orchestra section.
But think back to the earlier passage about the merit basis of orchestra auditions. Thus, in principle, the family connection should not have played a role in JC winning the assistant principal viola position. And things could well have turned out that JC would have won simply a viola section spot (still an impressive achievement on its own), and one of the other two folks would have won the assistant principal viola spot. But we don’t know for sure, and no one is going to admit anything publicly, of course. This puts things in the realm of pointless idle speculation (fitting for 3CM the loser).
Ultimately, things turned out well for JC and BGC here, since once next season starts, the whole long-distance marriage situation is set aside. Plus, for the orchestra overall, the viola section is more solidified with these new hires. (The long-term global challenge remains of getting more people to attend orchestra concerts in general, but that’s a whole separate mega-ball of wax.)
With that, Happy Memorial Day weekend, and time for the usual SNLC protocol, namely your loser stories of the week……