Asked to recall what year she joined the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Judith Mendenhall responds not with a precise date, but instead with a personal memory.
“I remember very specifically one morning going to play The Sleeping Beauty for the first time,” Mendenhall says. The beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, an evening-length cornerstone of the canon, is a dream for listeners, but makes relentless demands on musicians. “After just the prologue, you need a nap, a meal, a massage, and a bath,” she explains, laughing.
At the time, the flutist confided her concerns to her three-year-old daughter. “And she’s laughing at me: ‘Oh, mama, how can you be scared of music?’”
That daughter is now 30, which means Mendenhall—Principal Flutist of the ABT Orchestra since 1995—has performed the greatest works in the ballet repertoire for more than a quarter-century.
Compared to most of New York City’s other tenured ensembles, the ABT Orchestra serves for a very compact season: presently five weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House and two more at the David H. Koch Theater. But the musicians’ skill, along with their devotion to the art form and to each other, guarantees an ensemble of exceptional range and assurance.
“This orchestra is amazing in terms of its flexibility,” says Ormsby Wilkins, ABT Musical Director since 2005. “Despite the fact that the personnel changes over time, there’s a wonderful sort of passing of the baton that goes on. The DNA of the orchestra is still the same."
Players do indeed come and go, but longevity isn’t uncommon among the 65 players who comprise this distinguished house band. Jon Manasse, among the world’s most elite clarinetists, won an audition to join ABT as a Principal in 1988, almost immediately out of school.
Like his colleagues, Manasse juggles the myriad demands of a busy career as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and teacher. But, he says, “I’ve never wanted to leave, even when I got other things”—even an appointment as principal clarinetist for the Met Orchestra.
“To witness how this orchestra has evolved over the years has been extraordinary,” Manasse says. “And I never tire of playing that repertoire.” That includes canonical classics like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, works a ballet musician might repeat numerous times in a given week, and countless times across a career.
“What we experience is the evolution of a relationship with a work of art,” Manasse explains. “Are you never going to look at a Monet again? Are you never going to refer back to Shakespeare? What a gift, what a blessing, to be able to play these works over and over throughout your life.”
Long before she set foot into the ABT pit, violinist Lilit Gampel had experienced those works as an audience member, watching great dancers like Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Ivan Nagy. “I never knew that I’d actually be playing the music one day,” she says.
Gampel came into the ABT Orchestra over 25 years ago as a substitute for a member on medical leave and was invited to join after the following season. “I remember the first two seasons, especially when we played Swan Lake, I could actually see what was happening on stage in my mind, because I’d seen them so often,” she says.
Sometimes, from her vantage point in the pit, Gampel can still catch glimpses of dancers at work overhead. That’s a luxury not shared by wind players like Manasse and Mendenhall, or their brass and percussion counterparts. For those musicians, the conductor has to convey what’s happening onstage.
“There’s no way that I could approach the physicality of the dancers—that’s way above my pay grade,” ABT Principal Conductor Charles Barker says, laughing. “Our job is to give physical representation to the music, so the musicians understand it and create it on their instruments—and that, as a whole, is transferred to the audience. We’re a medium: the energy comes from the stage, hits us, and we have to kind of translate it and plug it into the right frequency, and it goes out to the audience that way.”
It’s a tall order, made tougher by a tight schedule. “We only start rehearsing perhaps a week before the season,” Mendenhall explains, “maybe a week and a half if it’s a brand-new piece”—for example, the recent premiere Like Water for Chocolate.
Still, she asserts—and Manasse and Gampel concur—the ABT Orchestra players relish the challenges and love working together to meet them.
“Our job is to provide the sound tapestry that will enable women to turn into swans,” Mendenhall says, “that will enable Renaissance Italian teenagers to fall in love.”
That the ABT players work such magic consistently despite the challenges, is what sets them apart, according to ABT Conductor and Music Administrator David LaMarche. “It’s something about New York players, I think, and it’s something about ABT players,” he says.“They always come through, especially on opening nights, and they just have a sense of how to make things work."