At age 22, violinist Felicity James is flying high.
Just last month, James was named associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, the third most important leadership position in an ensemble numbering more than 80 players. (She’s outranked by concertmaster Erin Keefe and first associate concertmaster Susie Park.)
The job was practically in her DNA, though. Her father and teacher, Simon James, is second assistant concertmaster at the Seattle Symphony, where he has played since 1988.
Born in Seattle, James herself recently completed a bachelor’s degree at Los Angeles’ Colburn Conservatory of Music. She brings considerable experience as a concertmaster with prestigious student ensembles including the Colburn Orchestra, Verbier Festival Orchestra (in Switzerland) and Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra. She also played as a substitute with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
James starts her new full-time job this week, playing the concertmaster role for the Minnesota Orchestra concerts including Home of the Holidays (Dec. 14-20) and “Beauty and the Beast” (Dec. 22). Reached via phone in Los Angeles, she spoke about the Minnesota Orchestra’s grueling audition process and her first impression of the Twin Cities. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Q: Tell me about the audition process for the associate concertmaster job.
A: First of all, there were several rounds of auditions where we played prepared excerpts of music. Those were “blind” auditions where players were behind a screen and the [orchestra] panel couldn’t see us. The last round was a chamber music round, where I got to play with a small group of musicians from the orchestra.
Q: What happened after you got through those early rounds?
A: I traveled to Minneapolis and did some trial weeks with the orchestra, playing in some of their subscription concerts. There was also an extra rehearsal added, in which I played some of the concertmaster solos from the audition list sitting in the leader’s chair. [Note: An audition list features key pieces from the classical repertoire, pieces orchestral candidates are expected to play well.]
Q: Was it a daunting process?
A: Of course it was very daunting — it was the first time the whole orchestra heard me perform. But it was also incredibly exciting. These concertmaster solo pieces are excerpts we [violinists] practice for many, many years, but we don’t always get to play them with an orchestra. And to play them with such an incredible group of musicians was really an honor and an unforgettable experience.
Q: What impression did the Minnesota Orchestra make?
A: The first thing I felt was unity — it was just like a very big chamber ensemble. From the first day, I also felt a real sense of community in the way musicians played and interacted socially.
Q: Were you planning to apply for this caliber of job straight out of college?
A: My dream has always been to be in a major orchestra. I could have stayed in school a few years longer, but opportunities to audition for a great orchestra like the Minnesota Orchestra don’t come up every day. I realized I had to take advantage while I could.
Q: It’s pretty unusual to get an associate concertmaster job at age 22, isn’t it?
A: You know, I have a couple of friends who’ve done similar auditions and won, so that was inspiring to me. There are so many amazing young players today, but a lot of them don’t necessarily try for these positions because they think older players have a better shot.
Q: What exactly is the role of the associate concertmaster in the Minnesota Orchestra?
A: Erin Keefe is the first chair [for violins] — she’s the concertmaster and leads the orchestra. My position will be the third chair; I sit right behind Erin. I will move up to the first chair when she and first associate concertmaster Susie Park are not in town.
Q: What else does an associate concertmaster do?
A: When I’m sitting behind Erin, my responsibility is making sure I’m able to follow her lead — and to be a good connection between her and the rest of the violin section, especially those who can’t see her. You also have to pass back different bowing changes or comments she might have to the section. You’re a link so everything can happen smoothly.
Q: Women now occupy the Minnesota Orchestra’s top three playing positions. Has the glass ceiling finally been broken in the orchestra world?
A: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. At least in my case, I’ve mostly been in situations that were dealt with fairly. I’ve had fair opportunities. And in this particular orchestra you have Erin Keefe, an amazing example of a female concertmaster who is doing an incredible job and making an incredible career for herself.
Q: What’s the most fun piece to lead the orchestra in as concertmaster?
A: Any of the great repertoire — symphonies by Brahms, Beethoven or Mahler, for instance. One of the first experiences that really moved me playing in an orchestra was Mahler’s Second Symphony. The great masterworks never get old.
Q: Are there pieces that are really tricky to lead?
A: The ones with the really big concertmaster solos I played at audition — works like Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” They require a lot of individual practice as well as knowing the orchestra parts well, and how to lead them.
Q: Did you know anything about the Twin Cities before you came here for audition?
A: No, I didn’t. But I had a few days off when I was in Minneapolis for the trial weeks. I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Foshay Tower, Mill City Museum and a couple of other places. I got a pretty good feeling from the city right away, so I’m excited to see what else it has to offer.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.