by Paul Dunkel
The New York City Ballet Orchestra was formed in 1948 when the New York City Ballet Company became the resident ballet company at New York’s City Center Theater on West 55th Street. George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein named Leon Barzin Music Director and Hugo Fiorato, a prominent violinist on the free-lance circuit and an aspiring conductor, was named by Barzin to the post of Concertmaster and Orchestra Contractor.
The ballet was a part-time job then as it is today. People might not recall that the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra were also “part-time” in those days and it wasn’t until later in the 20th century that the Philharmonic and Met orchestra were guaranteed year-round employment. Prior to gaining a fifty-two week contract members of those orchestras would seek work performing in other orchestral and chamber ensembles active in New York City. Today, the nature of their jobs makes it almost impossible for Philharmonic and Met musicians to perform outside of their home bases.
When the New York City Ballet Orchestra was formed, the management understood that to get the best players in town they had to allow their players the flexibility to maintain positions in other ensembles so they could perform with them when the ballet was in and out of season. New York City was a far busier musical community than it is today; freelance orchestras performed on an almost daily basis in Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the Metropolitan Museum and other venues, some now extinct. (Philharmonic Hall was not yet built, and when it was it became the hall for visiting orchestras and soloists.) In addition, there was a need for orchestras to accompany vast numbers of local choruses, both professional and amateur, and contemporary music organizations needed top-flight performers. A musician could play with a different orchestra or ensemble practically every night of the week, as long as the rehearsals schedules did not conflict.
The management and Music Director of the New York City Ballet, understanding that if they wanted musicians of the highest caliber in their pit, had to allow members to send in deputies for some rehearsals and performances. The members of the orchestra, realizing that those substitutes must be fully prepared to perform with less rehearsal than the regular members, made sure that those “subs” would attend rehearsals where they would “watch the book.” No sub went in “blind,” unless there was a last-minute emergency, a situation that can happen at any time and in any orchestra in the world.
If you attend a performance at the David H. Koch Theater on a Tuesday night you might see one of our musicians on Wednesday on the stage of Carnegie Hall, or in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera on a Thursday, or sitting in with the regular members of the New York Philharmonic on Friday. (Both the Met and the Philharmonic love to hire our musicians when one of their own is indisposed, on vacation, or when they are playing a work that requires bigger forces.)
Leonard Bernstein once referred to us as “the best pit orchestra in the world” (after conducting his ballet “The Dybbuk” in 1974) and that was quite a compliment since he had already conducted at the Met, Vienna Opera and Bayreuth.
You can go to our Meet the Musicians page on this site to check out where else we’re performing—or teaching—when we’re not in the pit for our amazing dancers.
Balanchine used to say: “Well, if you don’t like the choreography or the dancers, at least we play some terrific music very well.”
And we do.