I took a musician friend to see New York City Ballet last night. On the program were two of George Balanchine’s masterpieces, Apollo (whose score is by Igor Stravinsky) and Concerto Barocco (set to the Bach Two-Violin Concerto). I learned long ago not to expect miracles out of the NYCB pit orchestra, but I was shocked by what I heard. The playing of the string section in both pieces was ill-tuned and inaccurate, and in the case of Concerto Barocco the performance, particularly in the first movement, was so rhythmically uncertain as to adversely affect the quality of the dancing on stage. Dancers can’t do their job when they’re not sure what tempo to take.
My friend was appalled. I was embarrassed.
Musical standards at New York City Ballet have rarely been much better than mediocre at any time since I started looking at the company 17 years ago. A few years ago the orchestra actually dared to go on strike, in the process inspiring a joke that circulated widely among New York musicians and dancegoers: “The worst orchestra in town just went on strike. What do they want? Fewer rehearsals.” (That was actually pretty close to the truth.) Fortunately, the strike failed, in the process giving NYCB sufficient leverage to pry a more favorable contract out of the orchestra. The company then hired Andrea Quinn, an excellent conductor, as its new music director, and within months the musical side of its performances had improved noticeably.
I haven’t been looking at NYCB as regularly as usual for the past couple of years (I was preoccupied with finishing and promoting my Mencken biography), but now that I’m writing a brief life of Balanchine, I’ve been making a point of going more often. Last week and this, I noticed that the orchestra had fallen back into its old habits–not consistently, but often enough to be alarming.
Most dance critics don’t have musical training. A few, in fact, are downright unmusical–I’ll name no names, but New York balletomanes know who they are–while others know when an orchestra sounds bad but are understandably reluctant to say so in print because of their lack of musical knowledge. Hence the work of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and its conducting staff (whose role in the current crisis should not be overlooked) almost always goes unmentioned in reviews. Like George Balanchine, I’m a trained musician, so I considered it my personal responsibility to speak out about NYCB’s low orchestral standards when I was covering the company for the New York Daily News. I also talked about the problem with other critics, and encouraged them to do likewise, with some success.
Again, I’m not saying that the orchestra always plays badly. It sounded pretty good last week in Prokofiev’s score for The Prodigal Son. On the other hand, the performance of Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony on the same program fell well below any acceptable standard of musical quality, and what I heard last night was even worse. It grieves me that a company whose founder knew music from the inside out should be forcing its audiences to listen to such unprofessional performances. It also makes me angry.
New York City Ballet is celebrating the centennial of George Balanchine’s birth this year. I think that’s a highly appropriate occasion for his company to clean its musical house.