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Help Wanted: Elite Musicians

The L.A. Philharmonic has filled a dozen openings by putting hopefuls through a rigorous audition process.

October 08, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | 5John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

In an election year, some pundit inevitably labels the U.S. Senate the "world's most exclusive club." But major U.S. cities have clubs of similar size that are even tougher to get into--their symphony orchestras.

Certainly the talent-and-training bar appears to be much higher in an orchestra. But while the qualifications may seem more objective, ultimately the symphonic hopeful is chosen by the same elusive standard as the political candidate--be the one we want.

An unusually large number of Los Angeles Philharmonic members have been recently elected, due mostly to retirements. The ensemble that just launched the new season has a lot of new faces. The orchestra has filled 12 positions--more than 10% of the work force--since the end of the 1998-99 season, bringing close to 1,000 auditioning hopefuls to Los Angeles.

Newest of the Philharmonic newbies is principal cellist Andrew Shulman. His first concert with the orchestra was just a week ago, a preseason community event in Pasadena, with music director Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium. A mainstay of the London music scene for the past two decades and a British citizen, he has been solo cellist for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Philharmonia, and was cellist of the much-recorded Britten String Quartet for 10 years.

In 1990, Shulman won the Piatigorsky Artist Award, a prestigious invitational competition at the New England Conservatory of Music, which carries attendant teaching and recital engagements. He has also been developing a parallel career as a conductor, and anticipates returning regularly to Europe to work with orchestras in Ireland, England and Scandinavia.

For all of that, the move to Los Angeles is hardly a provincial retreat. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's reputation in Europe, Shulman says, "is very high, very fine." He is talking by phone amid moving-in debris at his new house in Topanga Canyon.

"The Philharmonic has a stability a lot of other American orchestras don't have," he says, explaining why a Brit might uproot his family and move to America's West Coast. "Esa-Pekka has a real vision of what the orchestra should be. He has a good relationship with the orchestra, so you don't have the politics and shenanigans you get in other orchestras."

Shulman comes by his talent naturally enough; his father was a double bass player and his mother was an opera singer. He began piano lessons in a desultory fashion when he was 6, before starting the cello at age 10.

"I chose cello partly because my father could help me with it, but there was also something about the sound of the cello. Its range is that of a human voice and it seemed more natural to me than violin. Once I got hooked on cello, that was it."

He was also hooked on orchestras. At 19, straight out of the Royal College of Music, he joined the Halle Orchestra. About a year later he became solo cello with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Then, at 22, he became solo cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He devoted seven years full time to the Britten Quartet, but reenlisted in orchestra playing in 1994 when "the Philharmonia made me an offer I couldn't refuse to come back."

Although he has played concertos and recitals throughout his career, he has no reservations about his preference for orchestral playing over solo work.

"It's the repertoire, definitely," Shulman, now 40, says. "At an early age, I devoured scores. I've always been interested in orchestration and structure, which is why I am now doing more conducting. There is nothing I enjoy more than getting into the style of a composer and the shape of a piece of music."

Shulman met Salonen through his work with the Philharmonia, where the conductor has been a regular guest. It was Salonen who invited him to apply for the principal cello chair here.

"I think the Philharmonic got to the stage in the auditions where they had not found anyone whom everyone could agree on. I've known Esa-Pekka a long time, and he suggested I come. I came and played with the orchestra for a week and I enjoyed the atmosphere very much.

"Interestingly, Esa-Pekka is very different with the two orchestras, a very different personality. Which says a lot about him, that he can adapt to and is sensitive to the instrument he is conducting.

"It was a long process then, bringing my family over to check out schools and houses. We're very pleased to be here now."

As a result of those visits, Shulman, his wife and two children settled in Topanga, allowing them to indulge a passion for dogs and walking. He is also "just getting into surfing."

"We were looking for something not too cityish," Shulman says. "It is a bit of a commute, but I did something similar in England, driving in from the country."

"I have known Andrew since 1983," Salonen says. "Before I picked up the phone and called him, I thought, 'Maybe he has done London now, maybe he is ready for a change.' It seems I was right.

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