This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 Issue of the Voice of Mendelssohn, our newsletter sent to choristers, alumni, subscribers, and donors.
Not to be too melodramatic about it, but if there is one part of the TMC chorister experience that might be described as stressful and angst-ridden, it is audition season. Once a year, both prospective and returning TMC choristers prepare a solo piece and take their turns singing all alone, without the support and comfort of the choir around them, for Artistic Director Noel Edison and Executive Director Cynthia Hawkins. This year, Associate Conductor Caron Daley joined Noel and Cynthia for the second round of TMC auditions in September.
Choristers who leave the TMC may breathe a sigh of relief in May or June, knowing that their days of annual auditions are over. If they wish to return as Alumni Singers, however, they still need to come in for a vocal check-in with the Artistic Director—only once every five years, rather than annually. This one-on-one time allows Noel to make sure that Alumni who sing with the Choir for specific performances are still placed in the appropriate voice parts, and that their time away from the choir has not sapped their vocal powers.
Auditions are the way that a top-notch ensemble ensures top-notch members. They also, to some extent, allow the artistic director to begin shaping the ensemble to reflect his or her standards. When he re-started the TMC in 1900, founding conductor Augustus Vogt included in the Choir’s constitution that members would re-audition annually. TMC choristers have faced the stress of auditions for a long time.
TMC artistic director Noel Edison says that, for him, auditions are “exhausting.” He says that he can tell a lot about a singer from those five minutes, though, starting with what music the singer decides to sing (assuming the singer gets to choose: prospective new members of the TMC are asked to prepare a specific selection based on their voice part). He listens for the quality of the voice, first, then for the singer’s sense of rhythm: “It’s the rhythm that kills them,” he says, reflecting his strongly held belief that a musician’s sense of rhythm is a measure of the singer’s intelligence as a musician. “If you can’t do rhythm, I don’t care how beautiful the voice is.”
Associate Conductor Caron Daley [for the 2013-15 seasons] sat in on the second round of auditions for the 2013–14 TMC season, and was impressed with the professionalism of the audition process. She noted that the exercises that Noel asked singers to do very effectively targeted where each singer’s skills were strongest. “The outcome of an audition,” she said, “should be that the singer walks away with an idea of what they should do next.” That may, indeed, be to sing with the TMC, or it may be that the singer needs to work on a specific skill, such as rhythm or sight-reading, for a while.
Auditions represent an indispensible factor in shaping the TMC’s sound and ensuring its artistic standards. Choristers and alumni know how demanding the Choir’s repertoire is: in any given season, Choristers must learn and perform—to a high standard—an average of one full, demanding concert programme each month. In order to meet its performance commitments, the Choir needs talented, skilled singers who are up for the challenge. A one-on-one audition for every member is the most effective way to ensure that every singer can do this. Moreover, they also represent an opportunity for the Artistic Director to check in, vocally, with choristers each year—to make sure that each chorister is placed appropriately in the choir, and that he’s aware of how a singer’s skills or voice may have changed. Indeed, Caron Daley says that she sometimes calls annual re-auditions “re-voicings,” and says that this annual check-in is not just about gate-keeping, but also about “creating the tapestry of the ensemble.”
Patrons and critics may not know the ins-and-outs of the TMC audition process, but they hear the results of that process. Recently, [following the 2013 performance] critics raved about the TMC’s performance of Carmina Burana with the Toronto Symphony; John Terauds commented on the “remarkable precision from the choristers.” And that’s what the audition process is all about–it’s the one of the first steps in creating a magical concert experience.