Pittsburgh Symphony rejects online concerto competition finalists


YouTube has done it for symphony musicians and composer-conductor Eric Whitacre uses it regularly for his virtual choirs. But holding online auditions is not so easy when it comes to finding a professional-grade soloist.

On Feb. 9, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra launched an online concert-soloist competition. The organization and its music director Manfred Honeck thought they would discover a brilliant, underappreciated young violinist, pianist, cellist or other solo musician who does not have a manager or agent.

Competitors were asked to upload videos from a list of prescribed pieces to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s YouTube channel. Visitors could then vote in two stages. The four finalists auditioned with the orchestra on Monday night. Yesterday, the orchestra announced that none of them were acceptable. The winner would have performed a two-night programme at the end of November, as well as receiving a $10,000 cash prize.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports quoted the symphony’s senior artistic planner Robert Moir: “It was fascinating to go through the process, but in the end the standard that we were seeking was soloists on a Pittsburgh Symphony subscription series, and we didn’t find that. From the very beginning we said we have never done this before, we don’t know what we would find and we might not pick a winner.”

Moir told the newspaper that the organization will have to rethink the competition, if it decides to try this again.

It must have felt miserable for everyone involved, given Honeck’s enthusiasm for the project at its launch:

“Technology has changed our lives in so many ways, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is now using the wonderful technology of the Internet to add excitement to our concerts,” Honeck stated in the February press release launching the experiment. “What is fantastic about this competition is that it allows people from all over the world to vote for a soloist to perform with our orchestra.”

Voting had narrowed the field from 104 eligible videos to eight semi-finalists in early April. The list included a Canadian harpist, 23-year-old Moncton native Kristan Toczko. The organization says 22,000 votes were cast to narrow the list to the four finalists (which did not include Toczko).

The competition videos have vanished from the Pittsburgh Symphony’s YouTube channel. But Toczko, who won the Yale Concerto Competition in April, has kept her audition videos on her own YouTube space. From what I can see and hear, she is playing at a very high level.

By inference, the four finalists should not, by any means, have been an embarrassment.

Then again, online voting is just as much about being able to marshal votes by whatever means possible as it is about artistic achievement.

Another reason why YouTube Symphonies and Eric Whitacre choirs are easier to assemble via mass auditions and voting is that uneven solo quality is lost in an ensemble. Solid technique trumps expression because conductor takes care of that on a group basis. (In the case of Whitacre, the vocal blend can be tweaked individual by individual, so all that really matters to a potential chorister is being able to carry a tune.)

It’s an embarrassing lesson for anyone who might be weighing the possibilities of social media against old-school artistic standards.

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Since the harp is chronically under-represented at Musical Toronto, here is Toczko with a quintet of fellow Yale students with Claude Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane:

John Terauds

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