When an orchestra goes looking for a new oboist or cellist, the audition committee might want to hear hopefuls play excerpts from a Strauss tone poem or a Brahms symphony, or even have a finalist sit in with the orchestra for a week or two.
But when the vacancy is for a music librarian, what’s the process?
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Music librarians audition, too. The Philadelphia Orchestra has just whittled a pool of applicants for the job to one: Nicole Jordan, currently principal music librarian with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, who will take up the same post with the Philadelphians on Sept. 14.
Jordan is coming aboard at a highly unusual time. For one thing, the entire interviewing and audition process happened virtually, without Jordan ever having physically met with a single member of the audition committee.
For another, it’s not at all clear that the ensemble will be able to gather this fall as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its merciless trampling of performing arts institutions. Though a music librarian has both administrative and musical duties, she is a bona fide member of the orchestra, working under the labor contract covering musicians, who agreed in May to a 20% pay cut currently set to last through mid-September.
But there is much to make this an appealing homecoming for Jordan. The 36-year-old was born and raised here, in Southwest Philadelphia and Germantown, and has family in Philly. Her master’s degree in music history is from Temple University, and she played trumpet and viola while a student at Philadelphia High School for Girls. Her undergraduate degree is in viola performance from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“I’m still in a bit of disbelief,” Jordan said. “I never imagined I would accomplish something like this. You dream about it, but you never really know if you can pull it off or if you’ll have the opportunity.”
Those opportunities are scarce. Orchestra librarian jobs are few and turnover is slow. Jordan replaces Robert Grossman, who began as the orchestra’s assistant librarian in 1979, became principal in 2003, and is retiring.
Her arrival is a rarity in other regards. She becomes only the fourth current black member of the ensemble and its first black woman. Orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky said the milestone was one step in “a journey that we will continue to move forward on.”
“Today, Nicole Jordan’s appointment is a historic moment for the Philadelphia Orchestra," Tarnopolsky said. “Through greater diversity comes greater excellence."
The orchestra has been “engaged very actively in a new strategy for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access” since last August, he said, and plans to talk about it publicly "in the near future.”
Jordan’s selection is also noteworthy in this particular field. “I know of only one other black [orchestra] librarian at a professional level,” says Jordan, who is active in the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association.
For most orchestra fans, their only glimpse of the job might be watching a librarian drop a piece of sheet music on a violinist’s stand as the orchestra warms up on stage. But everything that needs to happen before that moment begins long before curtain time.
"Obviously the biggest part of the job is making sure the right person has the right piece of music at the right time,” says Jordan. “But to get to that point, there’s a lot of research, clarification, and questions in terms of editions and instrumentation, to make sure that the idea the conductor has is the one you are actually putting on stage.”
A lot of music is available in different editions, each one with changes and corrections (or mistakes) added over decades or even centuries. It’s the music librarians who go over the score and instrumental parts, comparing editions and performance histories to match the wishes of the conductor or soloist, “sometimes bar for bar, note for note.”
Jordan will go about her work with fellow librarian Steven Glanzmann, who joined the orchestra in 2003 after working for five years as an intern.
Because it had been some time since it had hired a librarian, the orchestra engaged retired National Symphony Orchestra librarian Marcia Farabee for advice. A four-stage process was designed, and an 11-member audition committee formed.
First came a written test to gauge basic skills — things like transferring string bowings from one edition to another or solving an awkward page turn. Some candidates were eliminated.
The preliminary interview round followed.
A proctored online exam came next, “testing the depth of their knowledge as librarians,” said Marilyn Rife, the director of orchestra personnel who oversaw the audition process.
From there, finalists went on to be interviewed by orchestra staffers and musicians, including music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Jordan said he asked what her mission was for the library, what she could bring to the job. “It was refreshing to have someone thinking future-facing and asking for my voice, and that was something that was pleasantly surprising,” she said.
“Clearly, she had the knowledge base,” said Rife in explaining why Jordan was chosen. “That was very, very strong. But she also had a very warm but direct and thoughtful personality about her. I think of how the orchestra plays, their phrasing. Everything they play is so well thought-out and beautifully executed, and she kind of struck me the same way as a librarian.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra was hardly new terrain for Jordan. She had worked there once before, as a library fellow (intern) from 2008 to 2011.
Said Rife: "I think what ran through all our minds was, ‘Oh my gosh, someone who has started here and honed her skills elsewhere, and she is interested in bringing it back here.’ ”
When she does get here, Jordan is interested in creating a program that trains the next generation.
“I want to make sure people who look like me have an opportunity to be interviewed for this profession and have me guiding them. I want to modernize how we use technology in the library,” she says, pointing out that the technology moves fast.