New York Philharmonic Associate Principal: it's a privileged appointment, if by no means a relaxing one. It requires not only top-notch musical skills but steady nerves. It also requires plenty of extra homework. Let it be said at once that none of the 13 occupants of these select positions ‹ nor their five colleagues who hold the title Assistant Principal‹minds one bit.
Philharmonic audiences this month will have a rare chance to hear four of these musical marvels step out of the Orchestra to perform in a solo role in Haydn's Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major, which showcases the oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello. The concert also includes Mozart's Flute Concerto in G major with Principal Flute Robert Langevin as soloist, and Mozart's Piano Concerto in E-flat major, played and conducted by the program's maestro, Jeffrey Kahane.
The opportunity for four Associate Principals‹Sherry Sylar, oboe; Kim Laskowski, bassoon; Sheryl Staples, violin; and Hai-Ye Ni, cello‹to perform as soloists is relatively rare, as they are vital at home base in their sections. Their role is not simply to play a subsidiary part or double the Principal, but often to perform as Principal: They give the first chair a breather on a regular basis, frequently playing the entire first half of a concert, and must always be prepared to take over in an emergency.
"Our Orchestra plays so many concerts a year that the schedule for Principals is quite heavy," says Ms. Sylar. "Our job is to share the duties. We're all hired as soloists, and we have to be ready to go to work at any moment." She recalls a tour during which, on short notice, she had to take over the solo for English horn (not even her primary instrument) in Copland's Quiet City. "It's a good test of your nerves," she says cheerfully. "I try to keep a cool head in a hot spot." The cool head is helped by the fact that it is part of an Associate's job, like that of an understudy in the theater, to familiarize herself with any part that she could conceivably be called on to play.
The most recent arrival among the four is bassoonist Kim Laskowski, who has been principal in the Mostly Mozart Orchestra for the past four years and joined the Philharmonic at the start of this season. "When I first saw that the Haydn was scheduled, there was no bassoonist listed. Then in the middle of the summer I opened my mailbox, and there I was," she laughs, as she recalls receiving notice that she would have an opportunity to solo in her first season with the Orchestra. "I had the rest of the summer to learn the part." The opportunity does not go unappreciated: "One thing that really impresses me about working with the Philharmonic is that the players are very valued. When you walk in to work, you feel that."
Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples echoes that view: "Our management is very generous and sympathetic in that they realize the caliber of the musicians is high, and they try as much as possible to give opportunities to as many of us as they can. The Haydn is unusual in spotlighting four of us, and it's an extremely nice gesture on the Orchestra's part." Ms. Staples, former associate principal with The Cleveland Orchestra, remarks that "every responsibility that is the Concertmaster's is also mine at some point," including acting as liaison between the conductor and the string sections (or the orchestra as a whole) and, as she puts it, "being supportive of Glenn [Dicterow] without getting in the way." She, too, spends much time in the Concertmaster's chair, for which she must be prepared "100 percent of the time."
Cellist Hai-Ye Ni, just 27 when she won the audition for Associate Principal, trimmed back a flourishing independent career to join the Orchestra. She made the move not only for the sake of stability, she says, but because "I love the symphonic repertoire. I've gotten to play so many great pieces‹Mahler Five, Tchaikovsky Five, all nine Beethoven symphonies. It's such a rich repertory." Like Ms. Ni, Principal Cello Carter Brey left a thriving solo career to come to the Philharmonic, and he is still in demand as a soloist and remains active. When he is away, Ms. Ni moves into the first desk. In addition, she takes over regularly for the Young Peoples Concerts and the New York Philharmonic Time Warner Concerts in the Parks each summer. "It's a big job," she says serenely.
Shirley Fleming is music critic of the New York Post and New York correspondent for MusicalAmerica.com.