The Houston Ballet Orchestra was in the final stages of preparation for its upcoming mixed repertoire program last March when news about COVID-19 grew increasingly concerning. Natalie Gaynor, the young principal of the Second Violin section was there and remembers they'd just gotten to the dress rehearsal stage.
"I made a point of staying for the pieces that we weren’t on because I was like 'I don't think I'm actually going to be able to see this production because I'm pretty sure this is all going to be shut down.'" She was right.
"So that was really sad. And basically we haven't played anything with the ballet since March 11, 2020," she says.
But just recently, as part of a still-to-be-announced Houston Ballet presentation, 22 fully masked-up strings musicians from the ballet orchestra got together to play as one with conductor Ermanno Florio, Music Director and Principal Conductor for Houston Ballet. All the ballet is saying at this time is that Artistic Director Stanton Welch is putting something new together to be filmed with dancers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
As great as the strings reunion was, it still wasn't quite the same, Gaynor says. Besides the fact that only the strings musicians were performing, there was no sharing of sheet music stands as is normal, and the musicians were spread six feet apart. This made it difficult for her to hear everyone in her section. "A lot of times it just feels like I'm playing alone."
And the music they were playing — Mozart's “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” [“A Little Night Music."] — the well-known composition presented its own set of challenges with little room for error.
"Mozart is really fun and exuberant but it's also very exposed," Gaynor says. "Even if one person in a section of six or ten makes one little mistake you’re going to hear it. You have to be so exact and precise. But also within that you have to have the character of Mozart which is very exuberant and free but there's also the more tender moments. So in being very precise you also have to be musical and get all the phrasing."
Gaynor started playing the violin when she was 6 and growing up in Arlington Heights near Chicago. Her older brother played the cello, but, she says, the violin was more her size. Since he was being taught in the Suzuki method and she'd been listening in, she got off to a rapid start when she began her own lessons.
She ended up attending Rice University for undergrad and her master's, following her mentor, professor Paul Kantor who moved from the Cleveland Institute of Music to the Shepherd School of Music at Rice. [He brought 16 students along with him in 2012 when he transferred, she says.)
"During my last year of my master’s degree at Rice there was the opening posted in the musician's union magazine for the principal second violin for Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet Orchestra. I had been to shows at both companies before. I thought this would be like the coolest job."
She ended up winning the audition in January of 2017 and was named to lead the section that both backs up the melodies of the first violins and connects the violins to the violas.
"But I didn’t graduate from Rice till May so I ended up starting sort of half. I started with the opera in March with Gotterdammerung for five and a half hours. I practiced for two months, I was coming in not knowing anyone and I was 23. There was a lot of pressure on me to do really well in such a huge piece." Her first performance with the ballet was The Tempest by Sally Beamish and La Bayadère — a much shorter enterprise.
Despite the degree of difficulty factor under present conditions, Gaynor says she's glad they had the opportunity to play together and thinks the Houston Ballet's upcoming performance is going to be something special — something that shows off the collaborative powers of both the orchestra and Houston Ballet's dancers.
"I think the end product is going to be really, really beautiful."
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