When 21-year-old bassoonist Keith Buncke (IAC 08, IAA 09-11) first stepped out onto the stage at Symphony Center, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was a dream come true … almost.
But instead of a stage full of musicians under bright concert lighting, there was one solitary chair, near where the conductor would normally stand. A soft runner of carpet ran directly to the chair – and absorbed the sound of his footsteps as he walked silently to center stage. He had a small audience in the dimly lit, three-tiered ornate hall, but they were concealed behind gray panels.
Keith’s dreams had not yet come true, but they were tantalizingly close: just one audition away. The proctor who had guided him to his seat leaned in and whispered the piece they expected him to play: the first movement of the Mozart bassoon concerto.
Positions with top-tier orchestras are intensely competitive, so it is nearly unheard of for a recent college graduate to reach the final rounds of an audition process. Despite his age, Keith was hardly a neophyte – he had already earned a spot with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. But that seemingly incredible opportunity quickly turned to disappointment when contract negotiations failed and the orchestra was locked out just one week after he moved to Atlanta.
Without a contract or a full-time job, Keith did what any good musician would do: he practiced. And within weeks, he had participated in a preliminary audition in Chicago, which ultimately led to the “super-final” audition round in January.
As he prepared to play in the nearly empty hall, Keith imagined an orchestra playing the measures of the concerto. “My teacher at Curtis had a really effective technique for this kind of audition,” said Keith. “You need to hear the orchestra playing before you come in. It helps you lock into the tempo, the feel, the character and the sounds.”
The audition itself lasted five to ten minutes and was a blur. In its most memorable moments, Keith suppressed his own inner criticism. “Was that out of tune? You nearly cracked that note.” When he was finished, there was no applause - just a quiet walk to his warm-up room.
Mercifully, his wait was short – less than half an hour. The orchestra manager invited Keith and the other finalist onto the stage, and after congratulating them both for their remarkable accomplishments, awarded the position to Keith.
“It is extremely exciting and hard to believe. When I say that I am going to be the principal bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra it doesn’t feel real somehow.
In reflecting on the experience of earning his dream job at such an early age, Keith is quick to dismiss easy answers or pat advice. “I started bassoon at an early age so I could get to where I am at a relatively early age. I have a great and supportive family. I’ve had great teachers. Eric Stomberg [the bassoon instructor at Interlochen] was great at adapting his teaching to my individual needs and he pushed me just the right amount. I just feel very lucky that I found something that I was good at – but I’ve also worked at it really hard for several years. And even then, auditions are weird things and very unnatural.”
Keith will start in his new position during the orchestra’s summer residency at Ravinia, a summer music festival on Chicago’s north shore. “I am thrilled - not just to start in this role - but Chicago has such a vibrant musical scene and the orchestra has such a great presence in the city. I can’t wait to get started.”