“It may sound naïve, but for a musician, playing in a great orchestra is like being at one with the universe. The whole is greater than any one individual, and you combine to make something that in the best concerts is like a religious experience.” Orin O’Brien said that some 20 years ago. Today she adds: “I’ve always felt this way.”
Her earliest memories include the New York Philharmonic. Her parents, both Hollywood actors, encouraged their children’s interest in culture, from books to ballet. She recalls: “They listened to classical music all the time” — including, on every Sunday, NY Phil radio broadcasts. Orin moved from piano to double bass at age 14 to join her high school orchestra. Her distinguished instructors included two NY Phil veterans, Herman Reinshagen and Frederick Zimmermann, the latter serving as Associate Principal Bass. “These teacher-players stressed clear articulation and fidelity to the musical page, and understanding how to follow a conductor’s instructions,” Orin recalls. While studying at The Juilliard School she worked as a Carnegie Hall usher, an experience that enhanced her studies. “I heard the Philharmonic perform four, five times a week, with my teacher in the bass section!”
She passes these lessons on to her own students, focusing on how the individual fits in with the ensemble. “The bass is so low pitched that you have to be very precise in your articulation to make it clear when you’re playing in a section for an audience,” she explains. “I would insist that my students attend Philharmonic rehearsals so they could learn from a living example.”
Orin has handed down the Philharmonic performance tradition to orchestral bass players around the country, including three current members of the Orchestra. And she still teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes School of Music. (Note to would-be professionals: check out her Double-Bass Notebook, published by Carl Fischer.) She remains connected with the NY Phil, and will return this fall to listen in during the testing of the new David Geffen Hall’s acoustic. Still, leaving is bittersweet. “I miss the camaraderie of the bass section, and experiencing music in the midst of the Orchestra.” Yet her Philharmonic connection continues: she still attends concerts, and friendships forged with players live on.
On Orin’s retirement, Associate Principal Bassoon Kim Laskowski, one of her closest friends, says: “I was in complete awe of Orin O’Brien when I joined the Orchestra. She was hired by Bernstein, had played with so many legendary conductors and soloists, and had recorded so many of the LPs we all cherished as young musicians. As a teacher, she educated a generation of double bassists, many of whom peopled orchestras all over the world. We shared many of the same freelance experiences, and we both were members of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, although not at the same time. She also shared with me anecdotes, clippings, letters, and programs from the Philharmonic’s past that educated me. I will miss seeing her smiling, attentive face as I look to the left.”
In photo: Orin O’Brien with Philharmonic Laureate Conductor Leonard Bernstein, the Music Director during whose tenure she joined the Orchestra