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Performance Test

Former O.C. Assistant Conductor Details Audition for Pittsburgh Postition


A conductor strides onto the stage, radiating confidence, knowledge, authority. What did it take for that person to get there? Years of study, of course, and practice. But what was the actual auditioning process like?

"It was a lot of waiting," says Edward Cumming, the former assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony who leaves Orange County on Tuesday--four days before his 39th birthday--to become assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony this fall.

Cumming's contract with the Pacific expired last month, and after three years as the orchestra's assistant conductor (and as music director of its institute at Cal State Fullerton), he said he "wasn't sure if I wanted to do any more assistant conducting, to be honest."


"My wife, Celeste, talked me into it. I put my application in the mail. I called one of my conducting colleagues and thanked him for mentioning the job to me. 'Good,' he said, 'but actually I think it's past the deadline.' I had just sent [the application] first-class mail. So I faxed it, with a note saying I hoped they'd still consider me."

As it turned out, Cumming was one of five conductors invited to audition. About 200 had applied, even though the appointment only would be for one year, with a possibility, but no guarantee, of renewal.

"Any assistant level with a top major orchestra will get typically 200 applications," Cumming said. "That's pretty par for the course. I told them I was not a young buck fresh out of graduate school. They said, 'We don't want that. We want someone more experienced.' "

The five finalists started conducting "bam, bam, bam in a row, in alphabetical order," Cumming continued. "Usually, I'm first, but in this case I was third. We each were given 24 minutes. It wasn't much time."

They led the last movement of Beethoven's First Symphony, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" and parts of Copland's "Appalachian Spring."

Beethoven is standard repertory; the other pieces tested other skills. "With the Copland, they wanted to make sure we could conduct our way through a real difficult traffic jam. The music is not so hard from an analytical point of view. But it's tricky. You have to have a facile [baton] technique.

"The challenge in Wagner was . . . legato is the hardest thing to do. Almost all of us are taught how to do quick, wristy stuff. But if a conductor can do the [slow] opening of 'Tristan,' you've really got a conductor. The 'Siegfried Idyll' is that kind of thing."

After Cumming had his turn, there were two more conductors to go. "Obviously there was more waiting. After the fifth went, there was still more waiting. They brought us sandwiches. That's rare."

After a dinner break came an interview with orchestra members and orchestra officials sitting at a long table "maybe six or seven feet away from me. Welcome to the Spanish Inquisition. It looked very much like that."

What did they ask? "If I had a whole week with the Pittsburgh Symphony, what would I do? I gave them a program of Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Respighi. 'Fine. How about another one?' I gave them another one.

" 'What would you do if you're going to have two rehearsals for a program you'll be doing and we come to you beforehand to tell you that you only have half a rehearsal. What do you do?' I said, if the music required two rehearsals, we'd have to change the program and do something else. They wanted to see if I could be flexible in situations like that.

"They also wanted to test my piano skills. This was the only time I've had to do that. It made me very nervous. I'm not a pianist. A lot of wonderful conductors are, but that wasn't my background. My instrument was the French horn."


After the interview, he went back to the dressing room "and more waiting." Eventually an official came. " 'OK, of the five of you, we have chosen three who will conduct tomorrow.' Pause. 'You're one of them,' he said to me."

Cumming then expected to be able to get some rest, but they gave him a surprise homework assignment--to create three programs for audiences ranging from 8-year-olds to high school students.

The next day, the three finalists had to conduct parts of Debussy's "La Mer," Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche."

"About the time it was my turn, I was with someone who cracked a joke. I went on stage with a big smile. I felt totally loose. I thought, what was the worst thing that could happen to me? I wouldn't have a conducting job in the fall. Well, big deal.

"I have a wonderful family. I've got my health. For some reason, having told myself that, that took a lot of pressure off me. I didn't feel I had to get this job, although it was the only nibble I had."

When he was finished conducting the three pieces, another orchestra official came up and said, "OK, I have a couple of scores for you to sight-read"--the General Dance from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" and the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, both works with which Cumming was familiar.

After the conducting came another interview. "More questions. They all had a copy of my homework. They asked questions about that. Then they took me to a studio downstairs and put me in front of a microphone. 'We want to hear you talk to us, No. 1 as if we were 8-year-olds, No. 2 as if we were high school students and No. 3 as if we were a community concert audience.' "

Finally, they offered him the job. " 'Do you accept?' They wanted an answer that day."

All this for a one-year appointment.

"They will have a new music director, Mariss Jansons, next year. He has to have the final say about any future appointment when he comes for the 1997-98 season. Hopefully, I'll get extended for another year or two. But there are no guarantees. It could be a year in and then out. I'm taking my chances."

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