BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Behind every sugar plum fairy and wooden soldier is the New York City Ballet’s orchestra lending their talents to each performance of “The Nutcracker” this and every Christmas season. Ian Sullivan is an integral part of that orchestra as its principal timpanist, the sole player of the timpani or kettledrums.
Since graduating with a master’s from Julliard in 2012, he has amassed an impressive musical resume, whose highlights include performing with Yo-Yo Ma, joining Carnegie Hall’s chamber orchestra and playing with the Metropolitan Opera.
How did you get started? Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? For me, it was kind of late, actually. I started in high school. I saw people playing drums and wanted to play. And as I went through high school, I had a really great music program and it introduced me to a lot of classical percussion instruments, which there is an unlimited amount of. As I got more into that, it took over really quickly for me.
You got your master’s from Juilliard. What was that experience like?It was great. It was a really intense two years, but very fun. It was amazing for me to come back because I had just come from Michigan for my undergrad. It was really like getting thrown into the big city and having these big orchestra concerts. I went there primarily for my private lesson teacher. He was extremely strict, but really encouraging. It was all about studying with him, basically. I sometimes go back there because they do a mock audition every year and they bring in a guest to judge that. They asked me to do it last year and I got to be on the other side of the audition panel, listening to that.
You substitute at the Metropolitan Opera. What does that entail?Basically they have a certain number of percussionists and there are certain operas that require a lot more people. So we did the Shostakovich opera last year called “Lady Macbeth” and it required, I think, 10 percussionists and they only have four or five. So we came in. There’s a huge battery of percussion instruments that’s used for that opera. They play basically the whole time. It works out well because we have these off-season periods of time where we’re not playing at the ballet and it happens to coincidence with the time we are off from City Ballet.
What is the atmosphere like in “The Nutcracker’s” orchestra pit?It’s really exciting. It’s like we’re on this big sports team and we all have our different roles to play. It’s the same as it’s been since school, which is playing really great music with all of your friends. We have a conductor who we watch who gives most of the direction, but there’s also a lot of chamber music where we’re interacting between ourselves and making sure that we all line up and are representing the music in the right way.
You performed with Yo-Yo Ma. What was that like?That was great. I performed with him twice. Once was with a group that he is the artistic director of called the Silk Road Ensemble. People have played all these different instruments that are along the Silk Road, which are rarely played together, and they arranged music specifically for that group of instruments. That was a few years back, but then a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to play in this group called The Knights, which is a chamber orchestra in New York that’s run by Eric Jacobsen. There’s a piece that was written for Yo-Yo by Golijov called “Azul,” and it had been played by him in the mid-2000’s, but was never recorded. So in September we got to go through recording that entire piece, which was a big highlight for me.
You’ve played in so many iconic venues throughout Manhattan. Where are your favorite places to perform?The (New York City) Ballet is great. It’s such a beautiful theater. I really love the acoustics and the entire presentation. Before I worked here, I worked at Carnegie Hall. That definitely has a great history and the acoustic space is awesome, so it’s hard for me not to love that space as well.
So you’re still involved with Carnegie Hall, right?Yes, I was a member of Ensemble ACJW, their chamber orchestra, for two years before I worked here. Now, I function as an advisor to ACJW and as a teaching artist.
Tell us a funny story from your career. During an orchestra performance a few years back, one of the percussionists’ cymbal handles broke and the cymbal flew off and rolled all the way to the conductor during the performance.
What are your future plans? Do you want to stay in New York?I do want to stay in New York. We just got a new music director here at the Ballet and he has a lot of really exciting projects coming up. It would be really great to start a chamber music series here because we have a lot of really great musicians. I think there used to be a chamber music series in the past that really gets to feature these smaller groups in the orchestra, but it hasn’t been there for a while. That would be an awesome project.