The SSO has a new second horn, Jenna Breen, from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia, and Matthew Decker, assistant principal timpani and section percussionist, from the North Carolina Symphony.
Most of us have experienced at least one arduous job interview, which involved being sized up by strangers in a high-pressure situation.
Now imagine standing alone, behind a screen, with a judges’ committee on the other side, and trying to prove your qualifications.
That’s what the audition process is like for musicians auditioning for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. While blind auditions are common at the professional level — orchestras hold them to eliminate bias — that doesn’t make the procedure easy.
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“The audition was grueling,” says Matthew Decker, SSO’s new assistant principal timpani and section percussionist. Decker joins the orchestra’s new second horn, Jenna Breen, as the two most recent additions to the ensemble.
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“Percussion auditions are huge,” Decker says. “You always have a Bach marimba solo, excerpts from orchestral works, trials on xylophone, bells, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, vibraphone — just everything. There was a whole timpani list as well. The first rounds are blind. When you play behind a screen, it’s really intimidating. You’re nervous; it’s overwhelming. But then no one knows who you are, no one sees you. I kind of like it, but I really look forward to the later rounds when the screen is down.”
Breen, who underwent multiple rounds over 24 hours in April, has a different take.
“The scary part is when the screens come down,” she says. “You look out and there are 20 or so people spread out across the concert hall. It’s just you standing on the stage. That’s daunting.”
Breen, 28, an Australian, was a section player with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2012. Decker, 27, an Indiana native (“from the place that inspired John Mellencamp’s song ‘Small Town,’” he says) had been assistant principal percussionist with the North Carolina Symphony since 2014.
Decker was hired by Seattle Symphony 13 months ago, and he performed here, off and on, for a total of eight weeks last season while fulfilling his NCS contract in Raleigh. He also had several weeks of touring with the New York Philharmonic scheduled, and didn’t want to give those up.
After a teaching stint last summer at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro (the festival’s music director is former Seattle Symphony director Gerard Schwarz), Decker packed up and arrived in Seattle.
Breen’s relocation from Down Under was more a leap of faith.
“All I knew about Seattle came from watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” she says. “I was just looking at different options. This opening with the orchestra came at the right time. I’ve been here a month and hit the ground running with Seattle Symphony right away. It’s really just sinking in that I moved to America.”
Breen’s life in music began at age 9, playing flute in a school band. She switched to French horn when one became available.
“I thought it was kind of pretty. I had to choose which instrument I was going to study at university, and went with the horn because there are more job opportunities.”
Breen studied at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. A Winston Churchill Fellowship made possible intensive study with a number of orchestras.
Decker’s path to a career was more of a zigzag.
“In sixth grade, you had to decide between band or choir. My older brother said the guys in the percussion section ran around and had a good time. So I said I wanted to play drums. I got a set and joined a metal band. We played steady gigs around southern Indiana. My goal was to be a rock star. But somehow I caught the orchestral bug. Something clicked.”
Decker studied and pursued serious percussion lessons from such gifted players as the Indiana Symphony’s Paul Berns and Chicago Symphony’s Vadim Karpinos, among others.
“So now I get to run around in the percussion section and have a good time for a living.”