Hundreds of people work behind the scenes to keep the Spoleto Festival running smoothly every year, but the biggest workhorses are arguably the members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Often referred to as the backbone of the festival, these young musicians represent some of the brightest rising stars in the world of orchestral music, both in this country and abroad. They live in college dorms, work grueling hours, and play until their fingers bleed — and they scramble at the chance to do it year after year. Festival Resident Conductor John Kennedy recently wrapped up auditions, and he's excited for this year's crop of talent.
"A couple of factors were apparent this year," Kennedy says. "One was that we had the greatest number of people from last year's orchestra auditioning than we've ever had. On that level the competition was as high as it's ever been from among people we would consider people we want and hope would accept our invitation. The other thing that happened this year is we had very few people decline the invitation to come.
"We're not really losing people to other festivals or opportunities," he adds. "They definitely view Spoleto as a first choice."
Auditions took place over a month-long period in 10 cities across the country, from Boston to Miami to Los Angeles and back to Charleston. Thousands of musicians, including those who are returning, initially applied online and were screened by Orchestra Manager Chris Powell. Kennedy then traveled around the country to meet and listen to nearly 500 semifinalists. From there he whittled the list down to 86 of the top players, about half of whom are returning from at least one previous season. Kennedy feels confident making the final decisions regarding the orchestra on his own.
"Our orchestra works more efficiently if the decisions are made by one person who hears everybody, in fairness to the people who are auditioning, because if you have more than one person making the decision, sometimes it's inconsistent or there may be different interpretations of what's wanted on a different instrument," Kennedy explains.
The competition is extremely tough. The applicants are young, ranging in age from 21 to 30, but they're not green. They're some of the most promising talents in the country, and it's not uncommon for SFO alums to go on to secure jobs in top orchestras. Yet Kennedy says it only takes him about five minutes to decide if they're a good fit.
"It's very interesting. These days the level of playing among young musicians is very high and very focused at professional achievements, trying to advance in music," Kennedy says. "Wrong notes and slip-ups are really not an option. And so nearly everybody I hear will play a good audition in which they know the material which they're auditioning on. What we have to do is hear those who are especially technically polished — that has to be first — and then from there, I'm always looking for people who play with personality and freedom and demonstrate that they have their own sense of musicianship and they're not just playing something they may have been told to play or taught to play."
This year's lineup includes two star players from Cleveland: violinist Yun-Ting Lee, returning for his third year, and cellist Madeline Kabat, returning for her second. All of the musicians arrive in town with little more than a week to rehearse together, and they typically rehearse for at least six hours per day throughout the festival, in addition to their personal practice time. They have a free day about once a week. The pressure is even higher for Kabat, who was selected to play a concerto for the Intermezzi series and a solo piece at a chamber music concert. It's a tough schedule, yet the 24-year-old can't wait for it to begin.
"I meet my best friends at places like this," Kabat says. "Even though we all go back to our respective homes afterward, we keep in touch." She's currently completing an artist diploma program at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Although she looks forward to visiting the beach, the farmers market, and local restaurants, she says she's most excited about playing with the SFO again, particularly at the big Festival Concert on June 1 featuring guest conductor James Gaffigan, who is making his Spoleto debut. Kabat played a concerto under Gaffigan in Cleveland when she was just 18 years old. "It was kind of a highlight of my career, I guess if you could call it that," she says.
That concert is always exciting for festival musicians, but Kennedy says they also tend to shine at the operas. This year's lineup includes The Magic Flute, The Medium, and Émilie. All together, members of the SFO will play 25 performances over the course of 17 days, so you should have no problem catching them in action — or even just lugging their instruments down King Street.
"It's proven to be a really wonderful way of opening the festival to a new generation of people who are able to come and experience it," Kennedy says. "Not just the pleasures of Charleston and participating in the festival, but also to have the professional development and experience that working in this kind of situation allows."