An interview with Nick Danielson - Assistant Concertmaster, New York City Ballet
- Offstage with the Dancers
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By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 21, 2003
Originally Published on ExploreDance.com
Nick Danielson is Assistant Concertmaster at New York City Ballet, a violinist with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and a popular musician in the Argentine Tango scene, as a violinist with CuarteTango (Website) and with Fernando Otero (piano), Hector del Curto (bandoneón), and Pablo Aslan (bass) (Website). Nick sat down with me at Route 66 Restaurant, my favorite kitchen, 858 9th Avenue at 56th Street, NYC, 212.977.7600, over cappuccino, wine, and pasta, to discuss his current Tango music performances and the orchestral music of the New York City Ballet, Fall and Winter Seasons. (Also see www.avantango.com for more on tango music.)
REZ - I know you from the Tango scene, from your fantastic Piazzolla and Otero performances. Tell me how you branched into Tango from Ballet.
ND - I've been in the NYC Ballet Orchestra since 1992. I was lucky to land that job, shortly after coming to New York. I've listened to tango a long time, as my mother is from Cordoba, Argentina. I heard a Tango arrangement of Brahms' Hungarian Dances or of a Mozart Symphony. We made many arrangements to meet relatives down there and saw Astor Piazzolla at the airport in 1978. I was about 17 then. I came back to the states with a couple of records. One was of Antonio Agri, a violinist in the Piazzolla Quintet. They had done this record together, just violin and bandoneón (recorded in the 1970's in Italy). My love for Piazzolla music just grew. I thought, someday I'll get to play this.
Two or three years ago, I got to meet Tango musicians in New York. I told them I'd be honored to come and play. Now the Tango music scene is beginning to grow. There's a group of people putting energy behind it, bringing more awareness to tango music at the same time. When the average person thinks of Tango, they don't know you can also just listen to it.
REZ -- I understand you trained in Boston. Could you tell me about your early training?
ND - I grew up in Hartford, CT, and as a student, I had a fine violin teacher at Boston University, named Roman Totenberg. I also trained in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute of Music, where I studied with Ivan Golamian. I studied there for eight years and played in a String Quartet. I also taught at a branch of Indiana University at South Bend, Indiana for five years. Then, I came back to the East to New York. I didn't know what I was going to do, and I hooked up with the Orpheus Chamber orchestra, where I have also played since 1988. I've toured with them in Asia and in South America, as a violinist. I'm also at the New York City Ballet. Tango is my true love; something I feel combines extremely well with more traditional, classical music and creates a freedom of expression.
REZ - How did you become Assistant Concertmaster of New York City Ballet?
ND - I was on a list of invitees. I came in with this position. I auditioned for the job. I was chosen by a committee of Principal Players and the Music Director, who, at that time, was Gordon Boelzner.
REZ - What's your favorite Ballet?
ND - I'd probably say The Cage, composed by Stravinsky. I catch bits and pieces of the ballet from the pit. I've enjoyed watching Wendy Whelan dance this piece. I think she's a really amazing dancer. She's a dancer, whom I enjoy, when she's onstage. She has a commanding presence onstage.
REZ - What could you add to my three reviews of Symphony in Three Movements, from a musician's point of view?
ND -Symphony in Three Movements is a wonderful piece of music. It has all the elements of what's great in Stravinsky, particularly the intensity and rhythm, which make it so perfect for Ballet. I've always enjoyed playing it. I've loved his music. I've played a lot of Stravinsky at City Ballet and outside of City Ballet. One of our Orpheus CD's won a Grammy for a small ensemble. That CD, called Shadow Dances had a lot of Stravinsky miniatures.
REZ - Talk to me about The Nutcracker.
ND - There's not much action during the solo violin section. Drosselmeier is fixing the Nutcracker. Playing for an actual ballerina is more difficult. The orchestra knows "The Nutcracker" extremely well. It's nice to play, when you're not tied down and don't need to look at music constantly. I like The Nutcracker. It's a festive time of year. Then the State Theater changes audiences from The Nutcracker Season to Repertory Season.
REZ -In G Major was fantastic.
ND - This is a Ravel Piano Concerto, a classic Ravel piece, but not one of the greatest. Elements are attractive, in terms of dance ability. It's got a very beautiful, slow movement.
REZ - It is reminiscent of Satie, Gershwin, and Bernstein.
ND - Bernstein writes in Gershwin style. From the French tradition, Ravel was influenced by Jazz. He wrote a number of Jazz-influenced pieces. He wrote a Violin Sonata in the late 1920's, and the middle movement is called, Blues. There are a number of other Ravel pieces, where you hear the Jazz influence. A number of Jazz musicians, playing then, were also influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky. Jazz was strongly influenced by the 1920's musicians in Paris.
REZ - So, what's it like to play Bernstein's Fancy Free, compared to the classics?
ND - This is not an easy piece to play. It takes a lot of rhythmic precision. There are a number of big tempo changes, and you've got to be able to play in different moods.
REZ - Do you get to watch the soloists in their Bravura performances?
ND - I watch the Conductor. But, every once in awhile, if I want to see a particular NYCB dancer or one from abroad, like Sofiane Sylve, I check them out, when there's a break for me.
REZ - I'm still confused about how much you actually get to see.
ND -- I don't see the Ballets in entirety, but there are moments, when I look up to the stage and see something.
REZ - I find Kyra Nichols amazing.
ND - I've enjoyed watching her dance, especially in Pavane and In G Major.
REZ - Pavane is homage to a dead Prince, a heartrending performance.
ND - The music of Ravel is, in the context of a pit orchestra, not easy to pull off. It's not easy to make this piece successful. There's a lot of musical involvement, rather than detachment. Pavane is a piece that has to be played just right. It's one of the most challenging pieces that we play. Ravel's tough. When I was in Philadelphia, I played with Paul Paray. One of the things I learned from him was that every detail was important. He learned from Ravel. He knew Ravel. He conducted at Curtis Institute.
Now, it's time for me to go to the Ballet.
REZ - Thank you. We'll do this again soon.