On Sunday December 17, 2017 at 1pm, I will play my 1,000th performance of “The Nutcracker” with the NYC Ballet Orchestra. When I joined the company almost thirty years ago, they took one glance and correctly grasped that I did not belong in the dance corps, especially holding my giant bass fiddle. Turns out I had gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor. I was quickly dispatched down to the orchestra pit, and the ensuing decades have proven that this most fantastical of fairy ballets is the best gig a New York musician could hope for.
Tchaikovsky has given the world a unique gift. Yes, it’s one of the finest scores ever composed, but it’s also a job-creating rocket engine. There is NO other piece of high art music that can equal it’s mass appeal; no opera, no symphony, no concerto, period. Those of us who recognize this greatness cherish it carefully and never fail to send our prayers of thanks to Mr. T for letting us be a part of it all. Being granted membership in the rarified 1,000 Times Club is an even higher honor, although unlike SNL, we don’t get smoking jackets and a clubhouse.) I presume my creditors and similarly interested parties also send regular monthly appreciations when my checks clear. So do the many thousands of other dancers and musicians and THEIR extended dynasties. Precious few composers in history can lay claim to a larger legacy, and if that’s not fairy magic, I don’t know what is. Our dearly bearded Peter Ilyich was a sensitive and emotionally fragile sort, and I often imagine him looking down at us, happy and thrilled knowing he continues to be “The greatest jobs composer that God ever created!”
Speaking of great gifts to the world, it is was the balanced perfection and nuanced creativity of George Balanchine, the most renowned ballet choreographer of the 20th century, that has brought us the quintessential 1954 staging of the deceptively simple E.T.A Hoffman fable. The Great-American-Nutcracker tradition actually started at San Francisco Ballet in 1944, but they have altered their productions several times over the decades. Balanchine’s, in contrast, has remained almost exactly the same for a matchless run of sixty-something years. My wife Kathleen was thrilled to discover that the pink and green costumes are just as she remembered when her grandmother took her here as a small child. Like almost everyone, she was even more enchanted with the dancing snowflakes and the magnificent Christmas tree, which grows even taller than it did before the NYC Ballet moved from City Center to Lincoln Center in 1964. Incidentally, before it rises, the tree rests compressed and folded on a platform under the stage, right near where we store our bass trunks.
The Choreography is supreme and constant, but the dancing is newly poetic every performance. Observing 1,000 interpretations has proven this to me. You may ask, what I am doing watching the stage when I should be watching the conductor? Let’s be brutally honest here, the dancers are much better looking.
Each one brings their own personality and strengths to the various roles. There is also the adventure of the debuts, which happen frequently. Occasionally there is an artistic triumph for the ages and the audience knows it. Watch closely to see if that happens when you come this year! Twenty years from now you can brag to your friends you were there, and I’ll vouch for you. You are coming this year aren’t you?
Some of my favorites from years past were Darcy Kistler, Damian Woetzel, Albert Evans, Heather Watts, Jock Soto, Lourdes Lopez, and my all-time favorite, the extraordinary Wendy Whelan. I saw her dance the Sugarplum Fairy dozens of times, and was continually amazed that she just never ever missed a single step, and every one was seemingly perfect! Let me tell you, that level of artistry is not humanly possible amongst us regular mortals.
The current casts are also a big thrill and I’ve been around long enough to see them transition from young hopefuls into superstars. Tiler Peck has unbounded joy. The ethereal Sara Mearns floats the audience right up onstage to dance beside her. My current favorite, the inimitable virtuoso Ashley Bouder does the inverse, practically leaping offstage into the aisle right in front of you. A couple of years ago, she danced when she was pregnant, and gleefully dared you to be shocked at the thought of an expectant fairy.
There are fifty roles for the super-talented children in the cast, another of Balanchine’s strokes of brilliance. They start rehearsing in September or October. I know this, because my son Craig was one of them some years back. I chauffeured him to the School of American Ballet from our Rockland County suburbs every single day. To these dance-mad kids, getting chosen for Nutcracker is akin to inheriting Wonka’s proverbial chocolate factory. It follows that children’s ballet mistress Miss Abergel, who does the picking, exists as something of a godlike figure to them.
As much as we could wish, us bassists will never develop into deities, unless you count the mythological kind, crossing the river Styx, conveyed in an antediluvian boat, with a prow shaped like a filigreed conductor’s podium, rowed by ancient Maestro Charon punting and beating at the waves (and us) with his gnarled white staff. Imprisoned in the Underworld, we toil in the dark, enrobed in our boiling hot black layers, the bright heavenly stage unreachable above our heads. Down here, we interminably saw and pluck out our deep rumbling timbres, much like Sisyphus thrusting at his boulder, with the snarling teeth and sinister growls of three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the exit, until Heracles’ impossible twelfth labor where he seizes the mongrel, just in time for intermission and my nightly escape to the vending machines for Pop Tarts. Hope those Nutcracker kids left me some artificially flavored blueberry ones.
In New York, a city overflowing with fine musicians, my dear colleagues are among the very very finest, and are an endless source of inspiration to me. All these years together and we really function as a clan. All feuds are eventually resolved. Retirements only occur once or twice a year, and are bittersweet farewells. Quickly followed by a replacement audition, the winner is anticipated with great excitement. Is it one of our regular subs? Is it a member’s student like I was? For new players, the Nutcracker catharsis goes something like this:
Before first show: I’ve heard it on all those commercials. Is it kind of Broadway? Is it kind of pops stuff? What is it really? I played it at Radio City. Kinda hokey. Does it get boring?
After first show: Oh my gosh! It’s amazing and I love it! The music between the familiar tunes is so beautiful and wonderful. I had no idea! It goes by so quickly too. And we’re done by 9pm? Wow!
As 1,000 of these two-hour manifestations zip along, I blink, and it all blends seamlessly into a thirty-year tenure of my life. It dumfounds me that the personnel of the band has changed by almost 75% since my rookie season, so I’ve seen the above catharsis a lot. By now, it’s a wonder my middle-aged brain can remember everyone’s name! I finally empathize with my dear old musician dad Herbie, who, before he died, had a habit of reminiscing about gigs that occurred, “the other day,” but in actuality happened mid-1950s. The dancers and musicians age and retire, but like an evening primrose, the timeless Nutcracker is reborn afresh every tender twilight . . . and twice on matinee days.
Some of my original colleagues traced their orchestral careers back to the great Toscanini, including my first stand-partner, the inimitable David Walter, who had been my teacher at Juilliard. Our recently retired timpanist, the legendary Arnold Goldberg, who was with the ballet company starting at its creation in 1948, well, no one will ever equal his performance numbers, probably over 2,000 Nuts, and 10,000 overall. As that might lead you to imagine, us veterans probably can play Nutcracker in our sleep, and I sheepishly admit that I did that occasionally when my children were colicky infants. Even nowadays, during hyper-busy weeks of composing, fundraising for my own jazz orchestra, home renovating, bill paying, and commuting in heinous traffic over the George Washington Bridge, I can arrive at my music stand, sit on my wonderfully comfortable and infinitely adjustable German made bass stool, revel in it all, and realize that it is the most relaxing and rejuvenating moment of my day.
Maestro Andrew Litton is my fifth music director. All have been so different musically. Among other good things, he likes perfect intonation and unified, logical phrasing. Andrea Quinn liked driving, pulsating tempos. Faycal Karoui preferred to bring counter-melodies up in the mix, making the music sound surprisingly different. Gordon Boelzner was satisfied enough that everyone showed up on time night after night. Robert Irving dreamed of what libations awaited him at O’Neills afterwards. You do remember O’Neills don’t you?
We have our staff conductors who become great friends over the years, and we often have guests. They are almost always excellent, or at least professional. They instinctively comprehend that we know the score better than they do, so Maestro-splaining is unheard of. It would certainly backfire.
ANOMALIES AND ILLNESSES; THE SHOW MUST GO ON
The great Christmas tree never fails to grow, but confetti snow often blows into the pit, and the music stand lights once went completely dark. Another time the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” keyboardist didn’t show up. I could practically reach the synthesizer from my bass seat to “play” the voices, but I couldn’t remember which patch button to press and I lost my moment to be the hero. Actually, maybe I was smart, because had I pressed the wrong button, the boy’s-choir might have come out sounding like the steam calliope from the Carousel ballet. Such are the quirks of electronica. If Tchaikovsky had known of such possibilities, this would be a wholly different show.
One year we played a week of Nutcracker during our summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. . . during a heat wave. It was a peculiar dichotomy to see the blustery blizzard swirling onstage with happy audience oblivious to the sticky sweatiness of it all, at least for a few magical minutes.
There are also illnesses that have our ace personnel manager David Titcomb scrambling for replacements, often until the very minute before curtain. Playing with terrific subs is fantastic, and forces me to keep my own game sharp, lest they outshine me. Actually, most of them can. Here’s some advice: If you want to substitute in our band, it helps if your apartment is in the West 50s or 60s, and you are a good runner. Just make sure your tuxedo is clean. Better yet, just put it on, mill around the stage door about 6:00pm looking eager and hungry. Hey, you never know! Arnie Goldberg, who was also the manager before David, once said he wanted to keep a fake violin under his desk, and he fantasized about calling upon his non-musician wife to just sit there and hold it if he really got stuck, which he never did.
Once, the late, great Hugo Fiorato (then in his 80s) conducted an entire week of eight shows because the younger members of the music staff were all out sick with man-colds or other various maladies. Hugo was a remarkable person. If you don’t know what a man-cold is, ask your husband.
Now-retired conductor Maurice Kaplow once took ill at intermission, and his cover had already left the building, thinking the evening safe. This was before the cell phone era, so panic ensued. The cover was hunted down at the last minute, but one of our musicians could easily have led the band from the podium, and perhaps even the dance department might have stepped in to save the show if need be. We are a multi-gifted bunch.
Having a ballet dancer son means that for the last fifteen years worth of Decembers, at least once a year, on my day off, I attend a performance of, you guessed it, The Nutcracker: Long Island Nutcracker, The Knickerbocker Suite, et al, culminating a few seasons ago in his professional performances with Pennsylvania Ballet as seasoned pro. They do the Balanchine version in Philadelphia, and some days I can sit in the audience there to see him dance a matinee, then myself sit in the pit and play the evening show back in NYC. To traverse this confusing space-time continuum, I utilize a special transporter with advanced technology called the New Jersey Starship, I mean Transit.
Besides following my son’s career, the most gratification I get these days is watching his ballet schoolmates come in to their own artistic maturity. Many of the little kids I watched grow up are now tested members of the NYCB, and are making their debuts in the delightful roles the Nutcracker offers. Will some make the jump to stardom? It’s happily inevitable. I’ll be accompanying them with my bass, and rooting for them well into my second millennium. I hope you join me here often. Come down and say hello.
Ron Wasserman has been the principal bassist of the New York City Ballet Orchestra since 1988. He is also the conductor of his own orchestra, the New York Jazzharmonic, which earlier this year co-produced an evening of dance with the Ashley Bouder Project. He can be reached at www.nyjazzharmonic.org.
Using violence to promote or defend your radical religious ideology is reprehensible and beyond hypocritical, as it winds up utilizing metaphysical doctrine as a grab for personal and/or oligarchical power. Many religions have tried this concept over the centuries. ISIS is the current candidate for most nefarious power-mad faux-prophets, however there are other, less violent attempts occuring here and there.
I hope for the day the when all religion is kept solely personal, and completely out of the civic and political spheres. The American concept of freedom of religion is based on the ability for me to be able to practice my spiritual life free from the social or legal obligations of yours and vice-versa, no matter who is in the majority. The founding fathers attempted to give us this freedom.
Any legally binding imposition of your tenets upon myself wounds me. All civic laws should be based on principals of human morality and carefully weighed evidence, not on religious dogma, or ancient scripture taken at face value. There is occasional crossover, and the most important example which illustrates this is known as the golden rule, "Do to others what you would have them do to you," or maybe better put: "Do not do to me, what you do not wish me to do to you." Note: No religion can claim total copyright of this concept. It was probably Buddhist before it was Christian, which means that if society accepts this bit, we don't have to accept the rest of a particular canon.
Concurrently, there should be no breaking of civic laws under the guise of religious freedom. We are blessed (pun intended) to live in this country with these ingrained ideals. We all must be vigilant that they are never lost as they are constantly under attack from without and within. God help us and bless us.
Just wondering out loud about the bass and the music business, and the college educational system that feeds it.
Nationally, there are at LEAST 10 conservatories that graduate a minimum of 5 high caliber professional level bassists EVERY year. (Guessing at these numbers, but probably higher.) That's 50 or more cats ready to do business.
There are probably about 5 full time orchestra jobs that open up each year to audition for, and don't forget, international players are also invited.
To me this means that over the last 40 years, while the legacy music business is shrinking, the college system has seen steady and continued growth.
Some of my questions are,
1. why is specifically orchestral bass playing, and auditioning still such a large part of the music student's curriculum?
2. What can be substituted? My suggestion is music entrepreneurship.
3. Colleges are now amazingly adept at attracting the philanthropic support necessary to keep the educational system well oiled. Should some of that money be redistributed towards the non-profit performing arts which are always struggling to maintain themselves, let alone avoid shrinking.
If ever I were ever appointed as faculty to a music conservatory (although I don't expect to be, nor am I looking to be), I would wish the press release state my bio as reading something like this:
RW is a highly experienced musician, the specifics of which are unimportant. He will teach music and musicianship and how to apply such musicianship to life going forward after college, whether or not it becomes a career, and if it should.
More importantly, insofar as is possible, RW will attempt to separate out what is beneficial for the teaching institution and his own teaching career and ego, from what is beneficial for the student's development and potential entry into the real-world music business as it exists now, (rather than how it existed when RW himself was a student decades ago--or even RW's teacher's even way further back) and endeavor to place much greater importance on the latter.
Most importantly, he will point out the most valuable but not always most obvious thing, that a careful study of music teaches one how to teach oneself anything in the world.
He will also insist that his college students never put a space before a comma, and always put one after.
But of course, most of this explains why I would never be selected in the first place.
Benny Goodman's birthday yesterday. I will admit that the best group without a bass player ever was the Benny Goodman trio/quartet.
Roncito's unintuitive guide to auditions for musicians, based on decades of observations from both sides of the "Fourth Wall." Auditioner/panel. (Also applies to actors, dancers, etc.)
1. The audition is won or lost in the first 10-15 seconds of your performance, or can even be lost before (see #2. below) Prepare your first notes, or lines or steps carefully.
A. Have your cleanest, smoothest, most interesting thing to show in that first crucial phrase.
B. If, by doing this, you catch the listener's interest they will then tend to hear the good in your ensuing playing. Any ensuing mistakes or imperfections will be forgiven.
C. If you fail to catch the listener's interest in those precious seconds, they will tend not to hear any ensuing good playing, and will tend to only hear and amplify what they dislike about you, and every trivial mistake will be used to justify their first impression. They do this to pretend to themselves that things seem like they are going along faster in their internal clocks. Even though in actuality time remains constant. This is to alleviate boredom.
D. By way of explanation: This is based on human nature. (Which is probably mostly controlled by endorphins and other hormones.) The panelists simply don't want to listen to dozens of people playing the same thing, and they probably want to sit there for as short a time as possible. Most candidates will induce boredom, so anything of interest will alleviate that boredom. Something of great interest will make them start thinking and hoping that there could be a winner, and they will project themselves into the future where a winner has been chosen, the audition is over, and they don't have to be there anymore. Of course, in reality is they still have to wait out the time.
It's simple: Boredom = no endorphins. Potential winner = endorphins. Endorphins = good.
2. The audition begins from the moment you enter the room and walk to center. Do so with confidence. and pay attention to the following, any of which can lose you the gig before you play a note:
A. Don't fidget.
B. Tune quietly and minimally, better yet, tune before entering the room.
C. Don't rosin your bow, oil your valves, adjust the chair in the room, or whatever futz there is for your instrument.
D. To the panel, every second between your room entry and first note is an eternity of boredom. The fewer the better.
E. If you fail to get started within 30 seconds, chances are you have already lost because they will have tuned out listening for anything interesting. "No endorphins to be had from this candidate, who doesn't play, just prepares."
F. When ready to begin, don't 'prepare' for more than 3 seconds. You know what I mean.
G. Don't breathe audibly.
H. Continuing the explanation: As in #1, the panel is looking to get to the end of their long day. (I hesitate to say ordeal.) And these bring negative feelings towards you. Once a panelist has a negative feeling about you, they are projecting time forward towards the next candidate. You will be hard pressed to bring their attention back in time, as it were. That would denote more boredom.
I. Restated: Negative feelings about you (whether playing or composure,) are to be avoided at all costs.
3. No matter what you do, someone won't like it. I have seen people bored by ASTOUNDINGLY AMAZING playing (for whatever trivial reason-see above) Assume those folks are a minority. You don't need those outliers as long as you have the majority on your side.
4. Don't be nervous, unless you know how to channel that energy for good. You can only control your own performance, not any feelings the panel develops about it, so don't waste time fretting about what is completely out of your control. The following might sound like banal clichés, but use them psychologically to calm yourself:
A. Whatever is going to come out of your horn, is what is going to come out. You can't put the notes back in, so nervousness has NO positive connotation.
B. We all have a level of performance experience which is probably more extensive than we even realize. Even if you are relatively young, you have already performed through a large part of your childhood, high-school band concerts, college ensembles, gigs for little money we did for "experience." Use that experience in your audition.
5. Addendum, cause I forgot to mention: pay a lot of attention to the speed, intensity and depth of your vibrato. It makes a ton of difference, especially for string playing.
6. Also pay great attention to grand and minute changes and contrasts in dynamics, especially the pp and ppp range. Extra especially, pay attention to DEcrescendos. (anyone can do a crescendo.)
7. Good luck.