MET Orchestra Musicians Give Back

by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist

We have just finished the enormous 2013-14 season. We are exhausted, tired, haven't seen our non-Met families in a few months…maybe we are even a tad bit cranky. You would expect that we might store away our instruments, let our reeds dry out, maybe not think about music for a few weeks.

Not so. My name is Barbara Jöstlein Currie, fourth horn of the Met for 16 seasons, and I had the slightly hare-brained idea of putting together a small chamber orchestra to perform Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf as a fundraiser for the music program at my children's public school: PS 41, right in the heart of the city.

artwork by Ellen Korbo

artwork by Ellen Korbo

For some reason, I thought it would be easy.

"We aren't in the middle of the season. People will be at home, taking it easy,” I thought.

Violinist Ming Hsin bringing his talents to the conductor's podium (Photo by Rob Knopper)

Violinist Ming Hsin bringing his talents to the conductor's podium (Photo by Rob Knopper)

Well, I was partly right. I managed to fill out most of the string section with a pair of MET Orchestra super-couples. Ming Hsin, who took a break from his duties as a first violinist in the MET Orchestra to conduct the ensemble, and Wen Qian, also a first violinist in the MET Orchestra, were both kind enough to play. MET Orchestra cellist Kari Docter and her husband, Assistant Concertmaster Bruno Eicher, also donated their services. Assistant Principal Violist Milan Milisavljević, bassist Dan Krekeler, and my former Juilliard roommate, associate violinist Joanna Maurer, rounded out the MET Orchestra string contingent. Principal Piccoloist Stephanie Mortimore and Principal Bassoonist Billy Short were onboard, as were associate clarinetist Pavel Vinnitsky and oboist Max Blair, a (now-former) student of Nathan Hughes and Elaine Douvas, our beloved pair of Principal Oboists. The horns were settled thanks to MET Orchestra third hornist Javier Gándara and his former student, Roy Femenella, who now studies at Juilliard. For trumpet, I got my good friend (and arranger of all the Met Brass CDs), John Sheppard. Finally, for timpani and percussion I relied on MET Orchestra percussionist (and famed webmaster) Rob Knopper and his former student Greg LaRosa, who now studies at Juilliard. Rob also assisted me in renting the three timpani and the percussion equipment. 

Unfortunately, I still needed a trombonist. And I wouldn’t have minded getting one more violinist. The MET Orchestra trombonists were all busy, but this is where the story turns into a typical "Only in New York" story.

Hornists Roy Femenella, Barbara Jöstlein Currie, and Javier Gándara (Photo by Rob Knopper)

Hornists Roy Femenella, Barbara Jöstlein Currie, and Javier Gándara (Photo by Rob Knopper)

A few years back I met a composer named Johan de Meij, who lives a floor below my family in our apartment building. He also happens to be the composer of some spectacular wind ensemble music that my high school band played. It was through his music that our wind ensemble matured as musicians, and that inspired me to think that maybe - just maybe - I could make a career out of this wacky horn-playing business. When I first met Johan, I was in awe of him, and of the remarkable coincidence that the man partially responsible for my career choice lived almost directly below me!

Jump to last fall. Johan had a friend who was looking for an apartment to rent while he was playing with the New York Philharmonic for the year. This friend, Jörgen van Rijen, just so happens to be the principal trombonist of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He also has an extraordinary international solo and recording career to boot. In the end, Jörgen and his wife, violinist Jeanette Elsenberg, were gracious enough to play for our production of Peter and the Wolf!

The last piece of the puzzle was the narrator. I had to look no further than to my husband, who is a Juilliard-trained actor and has performed the piece before. It’s not often that we get to work together in such a creative way, and when we do, it’s a thrill. He was amazing.

Finally, we had a complete chamber orchestra, comprised of members of the MET Orchestra, a member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and a few exceptional Juilliard students.

Bassoonist Billy Short demonstrating the functions of different keys (Photo by Rob Knopper)

Bassoonist Billy Short demonstrating the functions of different keys (Photo by Rob Knopper)

The concert was an unqualified success. It sold out and raised over $4,800, enabling the music program to buy some much-needed new instruments. Having performed a similar fundraiser the previous October at Kari and Bruno’s school, I was ecstatic that it had all worked out. The PTA, having initially been unconvinced by the idea, were eager for repeat performances. Music teacher Eve Zanni, a passionate jazz vocalist and strong believer in universal arts education, was an ardent supporter of the idea from the start, but even she was blown away by the success of the concert.

Most satisfyingly, the response from the children was overwhelming. Fourth-grader Isabella said, “I have never heard such beautiful music!” Newly passionate Zachary, a second-grader, decided that he was going to learn to play the timpani when he grows up, while another mini-fan has made it a goal to “learn to play Peter’s song on the violin!”

Many thanks to all of the musicians who practiced many hours to get this concert sounding so beautiful. 

Only in New York, kids! Only in New York...