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Strung Along

A symphony audition: Thirty years of practice, 15 minutes of terror.



You’re standing on a large expanse of hardwood floor. You’re paltry figure is bathed in harsh light. Your palms sweat. Out in the distance sits a secret assembly. Secret, because you don’t know their names. You can’t even see their faces, because they’re hidden by a black mesh screen. Can you crawl back to where you came from? No. Do you wish it would all be over very soon? Yes. Yes, you probably do.

But this isn’t a courtroom. Nor is it a secret hearing before one of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Homeland Security tribunals. This is a moment you’ve been working for almost all your life. Few people would deliberately put themselves in such a cauldron of unbearable, nerve-scratching stress. Unless, that is, they aspire to work and perform for a major symphony orchestra.

Meet 41-year-old David Langr, a man who can boast that he made that journey and duly arrived at his destination: a chair as violinist with the Utah Symphony.

After starting lessons at the age of 7, after earning his bachelor’s degree at a state university in New York, after scoring his master’s in music performance at the Manhattan School of Music, and after years of concertmaster positions for national orchestras with lesser endowments, Langr got what he wanted at his fall 2001 audition. Once he got the good news, Langr and his friend—a bassist with the symphony—knew just where to celebrate. They’d get a big, dense Mexican meal at the Red Iguana.

“It’s a real high you feel for the next couple of days,” Langr says.

Those he competed against might have had to make do with a soothing cup of tea, or a stiff drink. Competition for positions at major symphony orchestras may not be as fierce as admissions for medical school or university faculty positions—yet. But it’s ruthless stakes all the same.

Never mind the Juilliard School of Music, which every year lets loose whole packs of young virtuoso string players on the world. If you want to make your living performing Sibelius, Mahler and Beethoven, you not only have to compete with them, but any other equal talent from lesser-known schools as well. Then there are the legions of professional musicians still working the audition circuit years after graduation from music school. Some find the job of their dreams. Others make do with paying jobs outside the halls of a major symphony. Some, after years of flying out for auditions only to come home empty-handed, go back to school or switch careers.

In art, as in life, there are no promises. That’s true even of the nation’s major symphony orchestras, which are undergoing something of a collective identity crisis. At one time, the symphony orchestra used to be the artistic hallmark of any major metropolitan area, proof positive that a city cared about culture. Today, money for arts is spread far more thin, with art museums, dance companies and theaters competing for dollars, even as attendance ranks for symphony performances dwindle. That’s part of the force driving this year’s much heralded—or derided, depending on whom you talk to—merger between the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera.

Langr doesn’t really know how many other violinists auditioned for the chair. Fifty? Seventy-five? More than 100? All that’s of little concern. Now, at morning rehearsals, he can stroll across the stage he once auditioned on, open his violin case and get to “work.”

“This is my spot for the week,” he says, taking a cushioned chair. “But we move around once in a while, which is nice.”

Langr’s fingers pour over his 1850 Italian instrument; his bow arm is a smooth arch of uninterrupted tone. It’s a bit like archery, but with a lot more targets. And Langr hits them all, producing a tone and melody that’s all gold and light. Just think of all the poor drones who work behind computer terminals, or sit in call centers. Now look at Langr, and you realize he’s one of the happy few. He makes it all look easy.

“I can honestly say I don’t get tired of playing the violin. After six or seven hours a day, your body might get tired, but your soul and mind never get tired of it.”

Not that the memory of his audition isn’t still fresh. Most of us always remember our beginnings. Auditioning for the Utah Symphony, he was struck by the friendly manner of the whole proceeding. At most auditions, you usually share a warm-up room with your competitors. Not for his audition in Salt Lake City. Here, Langr got his own warm-up room. Even a snack offering of fresh fruit.

“It was a great, very hospitable atmosphere,” he remembers. “At most auditions, you sometimes feel like a head of cattle.”

There are innumerable audition horror stories. There’s the candidate who, stricken by nerves, suddenly feels her arms go to sleep. There’s the violist who, wouldn’t you know it, discovers a huge crack in his instrument. The theater world is rife with tales of actors and actresses who will even go so far as to masturbate before reciting monologues, if that’s what it takes to unwind the nerves. For Langr, the trick is getting his mind off music 10 or 20 minutes before he’s about to go on. He’ll think of his favorite fishing spot, or the most refreshing mountain hike he ever walked.

“That kind of meditation resets your mind,” he says. “It gets you ready to do your best. An audition is half preparation and skill. The other half is composure. The whole audition can collapse inward on you if you lose your composure.”

Before moving to Salt Lake City with his wife, Kathryn, and their two daughters, Madeleine and Molly, Langr held the top violin chair—that of concertmaster—with the West Virginia Symphony in Charleston. He auditioned for the Minnesota Symphony, made it as a finalist for the Seattle and San Diego symphonies. Langr was even down to the final four in an audition for Cincinnati’s orchestra. He talks about them as if they were warm-up exercises. And maybe they were. Part of the trick is not taking the audition too seriously. Sometimes, it’s good just to experience the pleasure of playing the instrument. While keeping your eye on the next audition, of course.

One great benefit of performing with the Utah Symphony, he says, is all the young faces in the audience. “Here you look out and see far more younger people in the audience,” Langr says. “Playing with other symphonies, you look out to a sea of white hair. As a musician, you worry about that. You wonder about that next generation—if it’s there. Here it’s so nice, because you can actually see younger people enjoying the music.”