Alums land elite positions in orchestras around the globe

Playing the Part

By Risa Barisch

Making the leap from graduate student to professional musician is no easy task, but Mason Gross alumni are increasingly earning top-level positions with established orchestras.

Just in the past year, violists Sunghee Choi and Youming Chen joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Amy Krueger was welcomed as a horn player with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and Stephen Miahky was named first violin of the Blair String Quartet at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.

The list also includes Qiang Tu, who has been the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic since 1995, and is especially impressive given the state of U.S. orchestras, which in recent years have battled bankruptcies, strikes, and hiring freezes.

Nabbing such coveted positions takes talent and a little bit of luck, of course. But, says Krueger, who graduated in 2010 with a master’s degree in music, the training she received while studying at Mason Gross helped her to be successful in the “whirlwind progression” of her career.

“While I was at Rutgers, I got to work with some of the best brass players in the world,” says Krueger, who had a two-year appointment with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before landing in Louisiana. “I learned so much from coachings and lessons. I discovered so much about who I am as a musician, and how to be one, through Rutgers.”

Musicians looking for a career with a professional orchestra must be prepared for the intense world of orchestral auditions—a rigorous and competitive process that requires a “degree of stick-to-it-iveness,” says Daniel Mumm, a 2014 doctoral graduate who is principal cellist with Georgia’s Symphony Orchestra Augusta.

“The first couple of auditions were really rough, and I didn’t feel that confident,” Mumm says. “But the more I did it, the more secure I felt, and then I started advancing in auditions and getting offered work. It helps to get as much experience as possible.”

At Rutgers, Mumm studied with professor Jonathan Spitz—the principal cellist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra—and says that Spitz’s “inside knowledge and advice” about the audition process, as well as the opportunity to rehearse and perform the “challenging and rewarding” selections of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, readied Mumm for the rigors of a career in music.

“The level of professionalism in the orchestra was very high at Rutgers,” says Mumm. “It wasn’t a big transition to go to a professional orchestra.”

Led by Kynan Johns since 2003, Rutgers Symphony Orchestra—the flagship ensemble of the Mason Gross instrumental program—presents a concert series of three symphonic programs and a main-stage opera each semester, among other performances on and off campus. The orchestra has performed at venues including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Johns, who is also director assistente at the Palau de les Arts in Spain, chooses the orchestra’s repertoire each season using his own experiences sitting in on auditions throughout Europe. He says he strives to provide a balance of styles (last fall included selections from Brahms, Berg, Bernstein, Liszt, and Wagner, among others) and rotates composers so that students get a variety of work throughout their time at Rutgers.

“My focus is to center the repertoire on the majority of pieces that musicians are going to need to win auditions,” Johns says. “It’s not necessarily about doing left-of-center repertoire or trying to record premieres.”

The level of training at Mason Gross has also helped alumni to attain positions internationally—cellist Chan Ngat Chau plays with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Felipe Rodríguez won the position of principal trumpet with the Puerto Rico Symphony, and Raúl Garcia was appointed the principal violist of the Colombian National Symphony Orchestra.

Garcia came to Rutgers as a doctoral student seeking a mentor with orchestral experience, and found a “tough, strong, generous, kind, and supportive” guide in professor CJ Chang, the principal violist with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the last decade.

“He trained me intensively technically and musically,” says Garcia, who graduated in 2014 with a doctoral degree. “He brought out the best of me so I could achieve a successful viola career.”

Back at Rutgers, Spitz views his task with graduate students as “a polishing” of the skills and training they bring to the music program, culminating in their participation in Rutgers Symphony Orchestra (a requirement for doctor of musical arts candidates).

“It brings a professional type of experience to our students,” Spitz says of the orchestral experience at Rutgers. “The standard is incredibly high as far as ensemble and musical cohesiveness, and I’m amazed at the difficulty of the projects that Kynan takes on and the successful performances that result.”

Johns points out that orchestras are the main employers for instrumentalists, outside of teaching, in the United States, providing stability and benefits with full-time work. It’s why his “aim and obligation,” he says, is for students to be successful at auditions.

Judging by the growing list of Mason Gross alumni who have done just that, Johns feels he’s on the right track.

“Given our age, we’ve done very well,” he says. “That makes me feel gratified.”

Posted July 2017