Every winter, the Festival’s Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy embarks on a very important mission: to select musicians for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. This audition process takes him to seven cities across the country where he listens to every single musician who is hoping to earn a spot in the renowned Orchestra. This year, John is bringing us along by sharing journal entries and photos of his travels. Below is his first entry:

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From John Kennedy (1/25/2020):

It’s that time of year where I spend long days listening to musicians audition for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. As many years as I’ve done this, I actually have never tired of it. I enjoy seeing our alums who want to return, and meeting and hearing new musicians who might be part of the next incarnation of our orchestra.

I actually started the audition process last month in Miami, at the New World Symphony, in their amazing Frank Gehry designed facility. It’s a luxurious, fantastic environment to hear people in a great acoustic and where they have good spaces to get ready. But now I’m in New York, in January, and it’s always a bit of an adventure as well as testimony to the resilience of musicians in NY.

Inside the New World Center, home of the New World Symphony; photo by John Kennedy

There are very few good venues for auditions in New York, and it’s important that we have them at a “neutral” location, since we’re hearing musicians not only from New York and the conservatories here such as Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, but also because musicians come from Philadelphia, New Haven, Baltimore, and the whole region. Our orchestra manager Edward Kass, who schedules and plans the auditions, always has to start in the summer to get us a space in New York – and it’s rarely easy. We’re not alone in the predicament of where to go – other summer festivals do the same dance we do each year.

Orchestra Manager Edward Kass during New York City auditions (day 2); photo by John Kennedy

This year, our first day is at Pearl Studios on 8th Avenue and 35th Street. Imagine 3 floors of music and dance studios and the hallways packed with aspiring singers and dancers auditioning for Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, etc. The place is usually a madhouse. Classical auditions are not the norm at Pearl, but they know how to handle us and give us a big room in a corner with nothing above us, as well as a warm-up room nearby for waiting musicians to share.

When we got there to start at 10am, the audition room was so hot from the old radiators that we had to open a window. And you know what that means in NY. During the first audition, an emergency vehicle came by with sirens blaring and repeated blasts of the horn to clear traffic. The cellist playing was unfazed, and her focus and commitment was palpable.

The next day, we were at a different venue, Shetler Studios near Broadway and 54th Street. Our audition room was stocked with generic theater props – a doorframe, wooden set blocks, some odd tables – if we wanted to set a scene. The hallway was packed with young children taking group Suzuki lessons next door. Midday, our auditions were serenaded by the sound of news helicopters circling the Women’s March, which was passing two blocks away.

Audition room at Shelter Studios, photo by John Kennedy

Young musicians, particularly in the northeast, get used to taking auditions in aged facilities and less-than-ideal conditions, after trekking through crowded public transportation, slushy streets, and up slow elevators, to arrive at a tiny, overheated warmup room in order to get 7 minutes to play for me. But you know what – they did wonderfully, and I feel uplifted by their energy and commitment.

Next stop, Houston.

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The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will feature in the following 2020 productions:

Tickets are available online at spoletousa.org and by phone at 843.579.3100.

NOTE: The 2020 Festival has been cancelled. For more information, click here.