The Methodical Musician: Meet the New York Philharmonic's Librarians

Classic Arts Features   The Methodical Musician: Meet the New York Philharmonic's Librarians
Lucy Kraus introduces us to the New York Philharmonic's librarians, the musicians whose work behind the scenes makes it possible for the players onstage to excel.


It is 9:05 on a Saturday evening in mid- October, and intermission at the New York Philharmonic has just begun. The administrative offices are now quiet, but the music library is buzzing, as musicians stream in requesting parts they will need for upcoming concerts. Five ask for John Adams's Harmonielehre, a contemporary piece that will be performed shortly after they return from the imminent EUROPE / AUTUMN 2010 tour; others need CONTACT! parts, which have not yet arrived. A trombone player asks questions about the upcoming performances of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while television producers have requested scores for Act II of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, which will be broadcast on Live From Lincoln Center on New Year's Eve. There is music everywhere : in rolling files, bookcases, and stacked in piles on large tables : a veritable cacophony of paper : but there is no confusion in the minds of the Orchestra's three librarians: they know exactly where everything is and who needs what and when. Meticulously, at top speed, they work to satisfy requests and answer all questions before the concert bells ring again.

This is the musical hive of the New York Philharmonic.

The library is overseen by Principal Librarian Lawrence Tarlow, a trained tuba player who credits his love of esoterica and trivia as a key to his enjoyment of a job that he has held for 25-plus years. He is joined by Assistant Principal Librarian Sandra Pearson, a 1999 recruit, and Assistant Principal Librarian Sara Griffin, who joined the Philharmonic in September 2009. Mr. Tarlow is the primary administrator of the library, responsible for ordering scores and updating the database; Ms. Pearson handles music for auditions and chamber concerts; and Ms. Griffin is the point person for CONTACT!, the Philharmonic's new music series. Despite their individual niches, however, all are responsible for the accuracy, clarity, organization, and distribution of the music the Orchestra performs. Indeed, they are all musical sleuths who must figure out which publisher to contact for any given piece of music; possess a knowledge of instrumental ranges, transpositions, and arcane notational conventions for the entire orchestra; be highly organized multi-taskers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire and an eye for detail; and have very neat handwriting!

"The most important thing we do is to keep track of the collection, and to put the right piece of paper in front of the right person at the right time," Mr. Tarlow explains. "Every piece of paper onstage passes through the library. We acquire and rent music, prepare bow markings as indicated by string section leaders, correct printing errors, and fix unworkable page turns. We put out and pick up the players' parts and the conductors' scores, and occasionally the conductor's baton. We keep performance records, and administer the database of artists, repertoire, and performances." They also disseminate instrumentation details for each work to the operations, artistic, and orchestra personnel departments; fix damaged music; provide the conductor and assistant conductor with scores; offer estimated timings and durations of the pieces; provide practice parts for string players; and are fluent in score reading. "We're the second-best score readers in the building : after the conductor," laughs Mr. Tarlow.

On this busy Saturday night there is extra pressure, for the Orchestra is about to go on tour to Europe. "The most difficult aspect of the job for me is preparing music while we are on tour," explains Sandra Pearson. "We must have all the music for the tour, in addition to as much music as we can carry for programs coming after tour, because the players need to prepare for that as well." The four library trunks that travel with the Orchestra : "the heaviest trunks the stagehands handle," Ms. Pearson notes : contain all the parts, some of Music Director Alan Gilbert's scores, music for the weeks following tour, manuscript paper, and office supplies. Two librarians go on tour, and one remains in New York to help in an emergency via fax or e-mail, in addition to keeping up with the workload.

What brought these librarians to the Philharmonic? Lawrence Tarlow, a Long Island native, attended The Juilliard School and The Curtis Institute of Music, where he was student orchestra librarian. He worked as a librarian at the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center, C.F. Peters Corp., and G. Schirmer, and for the Oklahoma and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras. Sandra Pearson, who hails from Madison, Wisconsin, has a bachelor's degree in bassoon from the University of Wisconsin _Madison and a master's degree from Cincinnati College _Conservatory of Music (and is still active as a bassoon player outside of the Philharmonic). She has been a librarian for the Cincinnati Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and has prepared more than 100 recording, television, and film projects. Sara Griffin, born in Springfield, Missouri, received bachelor of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in oboe from the University of Missouri _Kansas City, and a master's in music from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was associate librarian at the National Symphony Orchestra, after having served as librarian at the Alexandria Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras.

"We have experience of what it's like to sit onstage," explains Larry Tarlow, "and we know what the printed part should look like. The music should be transparent and flow directly from the eye to the hands. We strive for that : absolute acceptance of everything on the page."

As librarians, all three are official members of the New York Philharmonic whose names appear on the 106-count roster. Each was hired by the Music Director : Mr. Tarlow by Zubin Mehta, Ms. Pearson by Kurt Masur, and Ms. Griffin by Alan Gilbert : following an audition before an Orchestra committee that involved extensive oral and written examinations covering repertoire and industry knowledge, publisher information, music copying, written bowings and cuts, all orchestral instruments and their transpositions, and copyright laws.

And all clearly love their work. "Preparing music is a very meaningful way of expressing yourself as a musician," says Sara Griffin. "It is a great feeling to look out on stage before the downbeat of a concert and see your work on the stands. It is even better when you hear it!"

Lucy Kraus is the Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic. She provided the photographs of the individual librarians that appear in this article.

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