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MUSIC ‣ NYC Ballet Orchestra: A Musical Force – Setting the Mood, and Motivating Movement Part II*

Phil Cartwright, Founder, HorizonVU Sound and Movement

Victoria Parker, Senior Editor, Dance, HorizonVU Sound and Movement

*We extend special recognition and thanks to the Strategic Planning Subcommittee of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and Cameron Grant, Pianist, New York City Ballet Orchestra.

This is the second of a two-part article focusing in on the New York City Ballet Orchestra. September’s feature turned the spotlight on the Orchestra’s history, its founders, and key artist contributors to the Orchestra’s international recognition and excellence.

George Balanchine famously said, “See the music, hear the dance.” Balanchine will be remembered as the ultimate musician-choreographer and the New York City Ballet Orchestra is recognized as one of the world’s finest dating from the years under the direction of Léon Barzin and Robert Irving. Moreover, the Orchestra has always been credited with performing works of world-class composers. In fact, Balanchine chose top drawer music, and he collaborated with living composers of his time, Igor Stravinsky being the most notable. His partnership with Stravinsky resulted not only in new scores by Stravinsky, but he also chose Stravinsky pieces not previously paired with dance for some of his greatest ballets. That was a match made in heaven.

Earth Day, 2021 at the Bronx Zoo. photo credit Julie Larson Maher copyrightWCS

L to R: Alan Moverman and Susan Walters, pianists, Tanya Witek, Steve Hartman, Ian Sullivan, Marji Danilow, Eugene Moye, Ron Wasserman, Harrison Hollingsworth, Julia DeRosa, Alexis Sykes

Robbins was also very savvy. He chose masterworks to choreograph, so that even if the choreography turned out to be prosaic, the excellent music and the interdependence of the music and dance carried the day. To his credit, Peter Martins continued the tradition of collaborating with living composers, and encouraged other choreographers making ballets for NYCB to do so as well. A partial list of these contemporary classical composers includes Adams, Ades, Corigliano, Glass, Torke, Wuorinen, Rouse, Knussen, Part and Ligeti. The use of extended instrumental techniques in many of the pieces such as Bartók pizzicatos and harmonics with strings; bisbigliando, and Aeolian sound woodwinds contributed to the innovativecharacter of the music. No doubt, so-called “movie music” played to meet requirements of some choreographers is not interesting for the premier musicians of the Orchestra, and mostly likely, disappoints some audience members.

The Orchestra is known for its comprehension of the exceptional alliance between music and dance. In the context of the overall performance, music and dance co-exist; there is no power struggle between the two. Balanchine wanted the dansante from music, but he understood the overall mutuality and expressiveness in both music and dance. In short, music and dance co-exist in association with the other for mutual benefit. Dating from the years under the direction of Léon Barzin and Robert Irving, this performance philosophy contributes to the identification of the New York City Ballet Orchestra to its place as one of the world’s finest.

The Orchestra performs the most varied repertoire of any orchestra. Performing distinctive styles back-to-back, night after night is characteristic. Other orchestras certainly play a varied repertoire, but NYC Ballet Orchestra has unique demands of its musicians.

Along with meeting demands of a dynamic repertoire, another distinct attribute of the Orchestra, perhaps the most distinct, is its ability to "turn on a dime. It can change tiny elements of an interpretation from night to night based on different dancers and different conductors. In fact, the Orchestra performs as many as 4 different programs in a single week, sometimes with multiple conductors.

Faycal Karoui leads “See the Music”

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, practical and financial impacts of lockdown, social distancing and ongoing restrictions caused serious disruption to orchestras and musicians in general. The inability to perform together ranks number one amongst social disrupters experienced by the musicians. The videos and performances that were self-produced for the community during the pandemic are undoubtedly inspiring, but there is no substitute for engaging on a larger scale in our home at the David Koch Theater.

Compounding the stress associated with the pandemic, financial support has been limited as the musician’s organization is not set up as a charitable organization. Consideration has been given to establishing a fund through the Union, but to date, such plans have encountered with insurmountable problems. The Orchestra offers a line of especially designed merchandise including t-shirts, bags, hats, and coffee cups to raise funds. Contributions are appreciated. The merchandise can be found at Musicians of New York City Ballet Shop.

Owing to a desperate longing to come together in respective art forms, there was a genesis of fruitful collaborations. No one envisioned such collaborations in the past. Performing artists are used to constant rehearsing and performing, and with the void imposed by COVID, people simply reached out and wanted their community back. When projects draw directly on the skills of the artists, they are eager to participate. During the pandemic, the collaborative projects included socially distanced and audio/video recorded performances generated from the dancers and the musicians working hand-in-hand on self-created ballets. Here are links to many of these projects:

The New York City Ballet Orchestra can be enjoyed at home. The Nutcracker is available on CD and the recording has been released with the feature film of the NYCB production of the ballet, which has become the standard for performances of the work. Under the baton of Robert Irving, the orchestra released many recordings of the varied repertoire that accompanies much of Mr. Balanchine’s legendary choreography. Stravinsky’s Agon and Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments are two examples and they can be found on the New York City Ballet Orchestra’s historical recordings.

You can’t go wrong with any of the recordings available, however, HorizonVU Sound and Movement recommends A Balanchine Album. The record consists of compositions to which Balanchine created four of his best-known ballets: Paul Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations [According to the Four Temperaments] (The Four Temperaments, 1946), Igor Stravinsky’s Agon (Agon, 1957), music from Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock (“Emeralds” from Jewels, 1967), and Peter IlyichTchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings (Serenade, 1935). The first two pieces were commissioned: the Hindemith by Balanchine himself and the Stravinsky by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.

Stay up-to-date with the NYCB Orchestra at Musicians of New York City Ballet


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