For Amado, Could (Fully) Blind Auditions Lead The Way?

 On  diversity in symphony orchestras, David Amado said “It’s  incredibly  important. I think that the orchestra should be of the community. I’m not suggesting that every statistic needs to be represented precisely by the orchestra membership, but I do think it has to be represented somehow.” Lucy Gellman Photo. 

On  diversity in symphony orchestras, David Amado said “It’s incredibly important. I think that the orchestra should be of the community. I’m not suggesting that every statistic needs to be represented precisely by the orchestra membership, but I do think it has to be represented somehow.” Lucy Gellman Photo. 

You’re a flautist auditioning for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. The selection committee lets you know that the first and second round auditions are “blind”—you perform behind a curtain, so your race, gender, and age are hidden from your judges. They can’t see you, and you can’t see them, and neither of you can communicate with each other during the audition. But in the final audition, you’re out in the open, playing with other members of your section. 

At least, that’s the way it is for now. If Conductor David Amado has anything to say about it, that process may change by mid-2019, with the curtain or screen staying up for all three rounds.  

Amado is the third and final candidate for music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO). This Thursday evening, he conducts Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and George Tsontakis Laconika at Woolsey Hall. Pianist Stewart Goodyear will join the symphony for the concert. 

Amado currently serves as music director of the Delaware Symphony, Atlantic Music Festival and Atlantic Classical Orchestra. The two other finalists, Alasdair Neale and Rebecca Miller, both held audition concerts in New Haven earlier this year. (Listen here and here as Music Haven students respond to both concerts).

For Amado, the position in New Haven is about taking the diversity he sees already in the city—a “balance of the high voltage academic community with a midsize urban environment,” he said in an interview earlier this week—and helping it bloom on the stage. 

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For years, he has been an advocate of the blind audition process that many orchestras employ. During each, juries put up a screen that allows selection committees to hear instrumentalists, but not to see them. In return, candidates don’t communicate with the panel during the process, eliminating responses to vocal range, and what it might reveal about someone. 

The idea is that it limits inherent gender and racial bias, long a sticky point in the largely white, largely male classical music world. Some juries have gone so far as to ask candidates to remove their shoes, because they found that committees were still influenced negatively by the tapping of high heels as candidates walked into the room. 

When Amado began with the Delaware Symphony in 2003, the organization already instituted partial blind auditions, putting a screen in place for preliminary and semifinal rounds, but not final ones. As conductor, he saw a problem—inherent bias could still exist in the final round, when the screen fell and a player's appearance didn’t match what jury members had conjured in their mind. So he changed the policy, advocating for the screen to stay up for all three rounds.

“I feel like, basically we just want to know how people play,” he said. “So we should just be judging them on how they play. If diversity is a priority, then it also has to be a priority in the process of selection.”

Responding to the Arts Paper via email Thursday morning, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra said it does not collect data on on whether the process has resulted in a more representative symphony since it was first instituted. Stephanie Wilson, personnel and library manager with the symphony, added that "There are times that our screen does come down - as it is optional in the super finals/chamber music round."

"In the most recent past, the committee and Maestro Amado have not opted for that and kept the screen up," she added. 

In other symphonies, there has been a surge in the number of women since like practices were instituted. 

If selected, Amado said that he would try to do the same for the NHSO. Currently, the symphony holds blind auditions for its first two rounds of auditions, then holds a final round where candidates can see the jury, and the jury can see them.

“Often in the final round the candidate is performing with other members of the section and this gives them the opportunity to see how they would function as part of a section,” said NHSO Marketing Director Katie Bonner-Russo when asked about the process.

Amado’s tack is this: fully blind auditions may lead to greater diversity onstage. And that means greater diversity on the staff, in the boardroom, in the programming, and the audience. 

“It’s a challenge, because it’s a lot of levels to slide, and you have to do one at a time,” he said. “You do. Or maybe you can do a few at a time. You can’t push them all. You can’t think that it will happen overnight.”

“It wouldn’t be up to me,” he added of auditions later in the interview, noting that the decision would take the NHSO’s union status and other executive opinions into account. “But I like the idea … I think it makes sense.”

It fits, he said, into a greater sense of balance he seeks with programming. A self-described “music nerd” from a young age, Amado grew up with a family of string musicians, starting piano early. As a kid, he watched as his mother, grandmother, and great uncle excelled in their craft, learning how pieces of music could “talk to each other” across genres, composers, and centuries. 

“What’s important to me is balance within a program, balance within a season, balance over the course of several seasons,” he said. “What’s important to me is that works on a program somehow talk to each other. That works on various programs talk across programs to one another.”

“Find connections—sometimes they’re overt, sometimes they’re wonderfully nerdy and subtle, but they’re still connections,” he added. “And I believe that if the connections are there, no matter how subtle, there’s a sense of subconscious recognition of those connections amongst people who are fortunate enough to not be as nerdy as I am. I think they smell the connection.”

David Amado conducts Berliotz' Symphonie Fantastique and other pieces Thursday April 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Woolsey Hall. More information and tickets available here