Accordion player William Schimmel warms up before a performance of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in New York on Friday. Photo: Elizabeth Shafiroff for The Wall Street Journal
Among its ranks, the New York Philharmonic counts 28 violinists, 11 cellists, four flutists, three trombonists and even one bass trombonist.
But when the call came for an accordionist this past week, the orchestra had to go outside its circle.
The ensemble turned to Bill Schimmel, a New York-based master of the instrument who has made something of a specialty performing with orchestras.
Never mind that the accordion is best known in a folk, pop or cabaret context. A handful of classically trained composers have incorporated it into their works, including Kurt Weill, whose “Little Threepenny Music” was part of the recent Philharmonic program. Mr. Schimmel, whose history with the Philharmonic goes back four decades, was more than up for the challenge.
The Philharmonic “has an energy that no other orchestra has,” said the 70-year-old Mr. Schimmel, who has also performed with symphonies from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Mich.
In its 175-year history, the New York Philharmonic has hired artists who specialize in a range of nontraditional instruments, from the harmonica to the hammered dulcimer. Even a virtuoso in the theremin, an electronic musical instrument with a distinctly eerie sound, has been tapped.
The works featuring such instruments often are of recent vintage, since contemporary composers are particularly known for pushing musical boundaries. The Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti’s “Le grand macabre,” which was written in the 1970s and performed by the Philharmonic in 2010, is a prime example: The piece incorporates harmonicas, a steamship whistle and a kitchen pot, among other nontraditional instruments.
But there are a few older instances. Famed symphonist Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) incorporated a mandolin into a few of his large-scale works, for example.
No matter what instrument is involved, the Philharmonic typically begins the process by seeing if a musician from within its ranks can play it, orchestra officials say. That often means turning to the Philharmonic’s three-member percussion section, since percussionists are known for their ability to tackle a kitchen sink’s worth of instruments, including, yes, a kitchen pot.
But the Philharmonic has other musicians capable of “doubling” in all sorts of ways. Violinist Daniel Reed has played mandolin, for example.
Still, the orchestra often has to look outside for specialists—and in some cases, it has to cast a net beyond New York to fill a hole. Philharmonic librarian Lawrence Tarlow said one of the toughest challenges came when the orchestra needed a musician who played the gusli, a Russian instrument that is similar to an autoharp.
“We didn’t even know what a gusli was,” said Mr. Tarlow, adding that the orchestra was eventually able to find someone to play it.
Adding to the challenge: Not all specialists in nontraditional instruments are versed in playing with an orchestra, which requires understanding how to take cues from a conductor. Indeed, in some instances, such specialists may not even read sheet music, which is standard practice for orchestral players.
Ultimately, that is why Mr. Schimmel, a Juilliard-trained musician, thinks he is invited to perform so frequently as an accordionist with the Philharmonic and other orchestras. Too many of his fellow accordionists don’t understand the dynamics of working with a symphony, he said.
And even those who do might not warm to the fact that an orchestral gig isn’t typically a spotlight-grabbing role. At this past week’s Philharmonic performances, Mr. Schimmel was placed in the back of the ensemble.
“You’ve got to be willing to be a third banana,” he said.
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