Hugo Fiorato

Classic Arts Features   Hugo Fiorato
A tribute to New York City Ballet's principal conductor at 90.

New York City Ballet's celebration of George Balanchine's centennial includes many occasions for fond reminiscence and recollection, by those who knew and worked with the great choreographer. Within the Company's midst is someone whose own NYCB recollections and experience go back nearly sixty years, who knew and worked with Balanchine for just about half of the choreographer's nearly eighty years.

Hugo Fiorato, the Company's white-haired, genial, venerable principal conductor, was in the pit as the orchestra's concertmaster for the 1946 premiere of The Four Temperaments, as dancers struggled in Kurt Seligmann's bizarre, unwieldy, short-lived costumes. He was the solo violinist when Symphonie Concertante was first danced, with two now-legendary ballerinas, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Le Clercq, in the leading roles. He conducted the world premiere performance of Divertimento No. 15.

He led the orchestra on the night in Moscow's Bolshoi Theater when Edward Villella's Donizetti Variations solo roused the audience to such a frenzy of extended enthusiasm that Mr. Fiorato had the musicians turn back the pages and play again for a precedent-shattering encore. He transversed continents with the Company, coping with unprepared ensembles of musicians who had no experience playing for ballet.

Growing up within blocks of what would become the location of the New York State Theater, Hugo Fiorato discovered his love of music early on, but never envisioned a conducting career. That came about with a certain inevitability, one step leading to another, as if it had all been preordained. "Conducting was never a plan of mine, although my father always said, 'You should study conducting, because that's where the real music-making comes in,'" Mr. Fiorato remembered, speaking from his Southport, Connecticut, home.

Little Hugo lived in a brownstone on West 56th Street with his artistically minded parents. His German mother was a singer and his Italian father an accomplished sculptor who was "crazy about music." Among the family's boarders were several musicians, and Mr. Fiorato recalls "opera rehearsals in the big living room. I would come down and sit on the steps listening, and the group's director told my father, 'If you don't give that boy music, we're going to have a big fight.' Of course, nothing could please my father more, so I started fiddle lessons at four and piano at five."

His aptitude and skill were such that at six he performed at Carnegie Hall, playing the Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. His teacher Adolfo Betti brought 18-year-old Hugo to Italy one summer to study with him. "I came back speaking fluent Italian. My father was so thrilled that tears came down!" Mr. Fiorato also fondly remembers "two marvelous ladies from Kentucky" who resided at the Osborne on 57th Street. One taught him violin, the other piano. The violin teacher advised him, "Although you have the qualifications for a solo career, you should get some training in orchestral playing." Mr. Fiorato then found his way to the National Orchestral Association, a training orchestra for talented young musicians led by Leon Barzin.

"I was a horrible sight reader, so he put me in the back of the second violin section," Mr. Fiorato recalls. "Little by little, I worked my way up to becoming concertmaster." Although he did not take conducting lessons from the idiosyncratic Barzin, he did observe him at work with students. "He had quite a temper," Mr. Fiorato says. "I remember one time he said, 'I'm fed up with being fed up. Hugo, you go on with the conducting,' and walked out!"

Barzin and Balanchine‹one with his ensemble of young musical prodigies, the other with his young ballet students ready to gain performing experience‹decided to join forces. The result was "Adventure in Ballet," a Carnegie Hall performance by School of American Ballet students and Barzin's orchestra in November 1945 that included the premiere of Symphonie Concertante.

Soon after, when Ballet Society was being formed by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Barzin, its conductor, enlisted Mr. Fiorato to assemble "the best orchestra this city has ever seen." "I got members of the New York Philharmonic, the NBC Symphony, and so on," Mr. Fiorato remembers. "We had a terrific orchestra." Ballet Society performances were sporadic, so the musicians held other jobs. Mr. Fiorato's own schedule included stints as concertmaster under such conducting legends as Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, and George Szell.

When New York City Ballet was formed in 1948, with City Center as its performance base, there were week-long seasons rather than scattered single programs. "I was concertmaster, librarian‹I did everything except sweep the floors!" Mr. Fiorato recalls of that era. "It was wonderful to be there in those early days."

When several potential assistants to Barzin did not work out, Betty Cage, NYCB's general manager, suggested they try Mr. Fiorato. "So Barzin, in the middle of rehearsal, said to me, 'You're conducting Serenade tonight.' When I finished, Balanchine said, 'You're what we've been looking for.'" From then on, Mr. Fiorato alternated as concertmaster and conductor. "Finally, I gave up playing because I had so many other things to do." (He did continue to play the violin outside of his NYCB duties. He formed the WQXR String Quartet, which for over 20 years performed on that radio station.)

"I found it was very important to watch Balanchine teaching class. You learned there what the body can and can't do." He spent many hours in the studio observing as Balanchine created new works. "I found that very helpful, because then you understood exactly what he was driving at, and what the music had to be. Particularly when he was doing his complicated ballets, it was terribly important to be there and watch him put it together.

"When Balanchine was doing certain Stravinsky ballets, such as Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, I thought, how can anybody begin to choreograph that? But he would sit at the piano and analyze the piece from beginning to end so that he knew it better than anybody. He made sense of it. He had that wonderful genius for really making a piece come alive. "He knew the tempo he wanted and insisted on getting it that way‹and he was always right, of course."

Conducting ballets through the decades for different generations of dancers, Mr. Fiorato has always kept in mind how Balanchine originally wanted the music played. "The tempo might vary imperceptibly from dancer to dancer, because their bodies are different. But I try not to adjust, because the worst thing you can do for dancers is to try to follow them. I try to teach them as Balanchine wanted them. I'm very good at remembering tempos."

On May 18, Mr. Fiorato, who turns ninety this year, will be honored by the Company with a special evening. He will conduct an all-Italian program of Balanchine works, and, as of the next day, his new title will be Conductor Emeritus. There will be further festivities in Saratoga Springs this summer. These honors do not mean Mr. Fiorato is retiring. He will remain a presence, and a vital memory and conscience, for what he warmly calls "the best company in the world."

Susan Reiter often writes about the performing arts.

Recommended Reading: