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The star attraction of next Wednesday's Toronto Symphony concert is French pianist Hélène Grimaud, playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. But a little further upstage, away from the spotlights, a drama will be unfolding in the orchestra's horn section.

It all began in mid-April, when 35 French-horn players came to Toronto to audition for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. And it's a very serious business.

They were men and women, young and not-so-young, some just out of university, some established professionals with positions in respected orchestras. They came from Canada, Mexico, Germany and Japan, but mostly from the United States, to honk their horns in a marathon two-day session at Roy Thomson Hall -- with the chair of principal French horn in the TSO as the first and only prize.

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"There are two types of auditions at the TSO," explains Ginny Scott, the orchestra's personnel co-ordinator. "First we have auditions for Canadians and landed immigrants, but if we don't find someone we want, we hold an international round. We held Canadian auditions for principal horn last year, and 10 people played, but the committee didn't select anyone."

In North America, the appointment of a new member of a professional symphony orchestra is a complicated process, full of protocols and safeguards intended to ensure that the selection is fair. Good orchestra jobs come up only rarely, and it's been decades since the TSO last searched for a principal horn: Fredrick Rizner held the job for 39 years, before retiring last year to Eastern Ontario, to start an antique business.

It's also a secretive process, from which the public and media have traditionally been barred. Orchestra management and especially the musicians' union are uneasy about outside observers, at a time when nerves are tense and reputations are on the line. And never before has a journalist been allowed into a TSO audition. But in the spirit of orchestral glasnost, an exception is made.

So here's how it works. On the first day, after drawing lots to decide the order of performance, the hopefuls enter the hall one by one, to play for a jury of TSO members: On this occasion, two hornists, two trombonists, a trumpeter, a bassoonist, a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. Each auditioning musician plays from a list of orchestral excerpts -- difficult solos by Brahms, Strauss, Ravel and others -- and has a mere 10 minutes to impress the jury.

But the musicians can't see the jury, nor can the jury see them: A large folding screen is erected in the hall, with the jury on one side of it, and the auditioning players on the other. The auditioners do not speak, and are identified only by their numbers. In fact, so carefully is their anonymity protected that a carpet runner is laid out across the stage for the players to walk on to prevent the jurors from somehow identifying them by the sound of their shoes.

The adjudicators silently scribble notes during the auditions, and during coffee breaks they gather in little groups to discuss what they've heard. "I'm looking for intonation and accuracy," says one juror. "I just don't want a boring principal horn," adds another. "I'm saving my big musical judgments for tomorrow," remarks a third. "Today I'm just seeing who can play and who can't."

Of the 35 auditioners, 28 play on the first day. From the jury's standpoint, the process is repetitive, even tedious. But it could be more so: Initially about 140 hornists expressed interest in the job, when it was advertised, but only those who were seriously interested showed up. "If this were Chicago, or even Detroit," suggests violinist and jury-member Jacques Israelievitch, "we might have 200 people." No doubt financial considerations are at work here, as Canadian orchestras don't pay as well as their American counterparts.

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Only five hornists are invited back for a second round the next day. As well, seven musicians who are already well-known to the jurors, including two members of the TSO's own horn section looking to move up to the top job, are added to the mix. For this round, TSO maestro Peter Oundjian joins the jury: He doesn't vote, exactly, but his opinion carries weight, and he can veto jury decisions.

Surprisingly, the big folding screen and all the other measures taken to ensure anonymity are swept aside, and the second round is played in the open. Nobody at the TSO can give a straight answer as to why this is done -- the reasons seem to be lost in the mists of time. But every orchestra does things differently: In Montreal screens are used throughout the auditions, in Cleveland there are no screens at all.

The second round is longer and the excerpts are harder. And because the jury and auditioners can now directly communicate with one another, players are sometimes asked to repeat passages. After all 12 hornists have been heard, the jury huddles to figure out how to proceed.

Backstage, where the musicians await the jury's selection, the atmosphere is tense but collegial. "I hope all the players here do their best job -- and I hope my best job is the best!" says Michael Thornton, who's currently principal horn in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver. "You never look forward to auditions. It's an odd process -- there's no orchestra around you, and you're playing in a hall you've never played in before. It's kind of like bowling for dollars."

At 31, he's a veteran of about 10 orchestral auditions. He was one of the lucky seven who was directly admitted into the second round because he's worked with Oundjian in the past. (The TSO's music director is also the Colorado Symphony's principal guest conductor.) "I was already interested at the time when Peter suggested I play the audition," he recalls. "I thought I'd like to work with him because he's a great conductor."

"I hate auditions," declares Allene Hackleman, one of the few Canadians in the second round. Last year, at the tender age of 24, she landed her first orchestral chair, as principal horn of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. But she still auditions; she played in the TSO's Canadian round last year, and has come back to Toronto for another try at the job. "I think some people get off on auditions, in a sick way," she laughs, "It's very stressful -- you have just a few minutes to prove to a roomful of strangers that you're great."

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As for the jurors, what began as an easy matter of weeding out inferior players has turned into a tougher process. Comparing hornists is a tricky business: The French horn is an ornery instrument, and even excellent players "crack" notes from time to time. The adjudicators are well aware of this, and are reluctant to disqualify an otherwise good player for a slight flaw.

"Reliability is important," explains Oundjian. "We're trying to find out in a very few minutes what kind of musical personality we're dealing with. If a horn player makes one or two mistakes, and then pulls things back together, that's okay. But if they fall apart, that's not okay. So it's partly a question of character."

The jury reaches a decision: Four finalists will be heard in a third round. Thornton, from Denver, has made the cut. As well, there's Tricia Skye, a member of the San Diego Symphony; Neil Deland, a freelance player from Boston; and Fritz Foss, a hornist from a training orchestra in Miami. Conspicuously absent are the two TSO members who auditioned in the second round.

The tension is ratcheted up another notch as the four remaining musicians are called upon to play for a solid half-hour, one after the other. Again the jury huddles, and again an inconclusive decision is made: Three hornists (all but Foss) have been invited back to Toronto to each play a concert with the TSO. It is at these appearances, which begin next Wednesday, that a final choice will be made, with one of the three hornists accepted into the orchestra. After that, there will be a one-year probationary period, before the winning musician is granted tenure. Once tenured, a unionized orchestral musician is almost impossible to fire -- which accounts, in part, for why orchestras are so careful in their choices.

Ironically, of the four finalists, the only one who stays at the hall to hear the jury's final decision is Foss. (The others, exhausted at the end of the day, return to their hotel rooms.) He's obviously disappointed, but manages to find a silver lining in the clouds. "I could have played a little better, I suppose -- but it's nice to make the finals."

Optimism and self-confidence are professional requirements for young musicians, and Foss is encouraged by his near-success in Toronto. Maybe next time he'll edge out the competition and land the job. After all, there's always another audition to be played -- somewhere.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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