An audition with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is always dramatic. But the recent audition the Philharmonic ?held for a first violinist was more than dramatic. It was historic.
The final round featured only a single anonymous candidate, who ?played behind a screen, as protocol dictates, while a committee listened closely.
At last, the candidate was approved and could step from ?behind the screen.
The audition committee gasped.
The mystery violinist was Megan Prokes, the 28-year-old daughter of longtime ?BPO violinist Robert Prokes. Hired by the BPO's great former music director Julius Rudel, Robert Prokes recently celebrated 30 years with the orchestra.
"We did not know it was Megan until after we had accepted the anonymous candidate for the BPO," BPO music director JoAnn Falletta says. "There was a great deal of celebrating and quite a few tears of joy when we learned it was Megan.
"This must be the first ?father-daughter duo in the BPO," she says. Upon reflection, she adds she cannot think of any parent/child duo in the orchestra's history. ?The Prokeses are the first, to anyone's recollection.
Robert Prokes and his daughter will not exactly be playing side by side. ?She will be a rookie first violinist, while he is a mainstay of the second violin section.
Prokes and his wife, the respected violist and teacher Patricia Prokes, were ecstatic when they learned Megan was hired. The phone call came in from Megan's sister, Tea, 26, also a gifted violinist.
"She called us when the auditions started coming down, told us how Megan was playing the finals, and then played again for the finals, so we knew. My wife and I were going a little bit crazy," Prokes laughs.
"Then we heard that she had won it. It's just the most marvelous thing. Not only that it's very, very difficult to get a job these days in the orchestral field, but that she got it here."
Megan Prokes had been playing for the last year in the Virginia Symphony, where Falletta is also music director. Her new job with the BPO gives her proud dad a double Father's Day present. Besides playing Beethoven and Brahms with his daughter, she will be moving back home to Buffalo.
> Behind the screen
Megan Prokes was reached while playing at the Castleton Music Festival in the mountains of Virginia where, she apologizes in a crackly phone message, her cellphone will not work.
She comes across as a serious young woman, but she shows a lot of exuberance, too, as she describes her audition.
For one thing, she says, she was happy for the screen, which assures a candidate that he or she is not getting special treatment. "I wasn't expecting to play the finals," she confesses. "I didn't have nice clothes, so I wore a T-shirt and sneakers."
Asked to play masterpieces of the orchestra repertoire, including passages from Brahms' Fourth Symphony and Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, she could take comfort in knowing that she was prepared.
As the daughter of musicians, she began violin lessons as a tot. Throughout her years at Williamsville South High School, she studied with Buffalo Suzuki Strings.
"I truly always really liked it," she says. "I'm so stubborn. I'm not a quitter. Even if I don't like something in general, it really bothers me if I feel like I'm frustrated because I'm not doing as well as I want to do, [but] my response is not to quit."
Mary Cay Neal, director of Buffalo Suzuki Strings, noticed her dedication.
"She was a very serious student, but she also was a wonderful team player in making music," Neal says. "When we look at young people playing in orchestras these days, you have to admire their diligence and persistence, because that's what got them there."
> Feeling every note
It helped that Megan Prokes simply loved music. Even as a girl, she loved listening to music as well as playing it, thrilling to the angular melodies of Prokofiev, the lively virtuosity of Vivaldi, and, above all, Mozart operas.
Still, it was not until she attended Carnegie Mellon University that she decided to adopt music as a major, and then only at the last minute.
"When I started music school, with people who understood what it means to practice, to love music more than anything ... I felt I really was where I belonged," she said. "I worked really hard, and fortunately had a lot of success. It wasn't easy."
Throughout her college years, she won praise as a soloist. In Buffalo, she soloed before big crowds at Viva Vivaldi with the Ars Nova Musicians and Marylouise Nanna, who now will be her colleague in the BPO's first violin section. A 2008 performance at Viva Vivaldi drew praise from The News. "Focused from the start, she played with expression and assurance," the review read. "She seemed to feel every note, and she communicated the excitement to the audience."
She subbed a few times with the BPO, in addition to filling in for the past year with the Virginia Symphony. Falletta noticed her gifts.
"Megan has been playing in Virginia with extraordinary success," she says. "Her colleagues there have told me very often what a great musician she is, and I have been so happy to have her with us there."
But the violin appointment in Virginia was only for a year. With the economy iffy and orchestras cutting back, the search for an orchestra job is difficult even for the most gifted performers.
The Buffalo audition was Megan Prokes' sixth since January. And auditions, she says, are exhausting.
"It's very frustrating. Most of the time you leave with nothing, It's very expensive. Most don't give you feedback, you don't know what you're doing right or wrong. I think it's about getting to know yourself," she explains.
> ‘You're rushing'
Her father gave her a lot of advice.
A quiet man who shuns the spotlight, Robert Prokes has years' worth of musical wisdom. "He's an excellent audition coach," his daughter says. "I tell him to tell me everything he hears. He'll say, ‘You're rushing,' or something. Sometimes I'll call down to him, ‘I know you're cooking, but please come up and tell me what you hear.' "
Throughout the ordeal of the audition itself, her sister was her anchor.
Tea (pronounced TAY-ah) Prokes lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she plays in the Ann Arbor Symphony and other area orchestras. She had been auditioning, too, for the BPO opening. When it looked as if Megan might win it, she offered her boundless support.
"She sat with me between my finals, made small talk, asked me if I needed anything," Megan Prokes says. "She helped me stay relaxed. Between rounds, when you're waiting, all you can think of are things you did wrong. And she would quietly answer, ‘OK, if they didn't like you they would have sent you home.' She was really wonderful."
The late Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki violin method, would be beaming. Part of his philosophy, Neal says, was that music should not be competitive.
"You compete against yourself, not against other people," she says. "We pull for each other. We congratulate each other. Megan and Tea have lived that philosophy."
The announcement that she had won threw Megan herself into shock.
"I've become so accustomed to just going into auditions and playing, maybe advancing, maybe not, then going home," she says. "I kind of learned in more recent auditions just to go in, do the best I can, and let it go.
"I was halfway to the letting-it-go phase when they told me I had won."
The Prokes family toasted Megan's victory that night at Curly's, the renowned Lackawanna tavern.
Her job means a new beginning, something she has acknowledged in a personal way.
Since childhood, she has kept journals, in an endless variety of volumes. The day before the BPO audition, she had just begun a new journal, one she bought at the Darwin Martin House. The choice turned out to be symbolic.
"I love everything about Buffalo," she says. "I'm looking forward to moving back to a place that really has a winter. I love Virginia – it's a beautiful state, beautiful people. But I love the seasons in Western New York. ... I love the city, the suburbs, the waterfront, Elmwood Avenue, the art gallery, the science museum. I can't believe I'm moving back to a city that has Shakespeare in Delaware Park. I can go as many times as I want.
"I don't know how you could grow up in Buffalo and not love it. I always thought I'd move back."