Visions of sugarplums: 2,000 ‘Nutcrackers’ under his fingers
It was after a matinee of “The Nutcracker,” a little boy with tousled brown locks walked along one of the country’s most famous stages. In front of him was a literal land of sweets — fruits and candied platters hanging spectacularly along a lemonade-pink backdrop.
Still, he could not help but to stare behind him, his eyes fixed on the dark orchestra pit below, where Eugene Moye plucked his cello.
Moye’s notes inundated the space with holiday hymns and classical strains that merited applause. The boy listened in silence, transfixed.
Then came the excited squeals.
The David H. Koch Theater — where the New York City Ballet performs its season — is something of a second home to Moye. There, since 1972, his cello has sung melodies to accompany ballets by masters like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, as well as up-and-comers like Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher.
And there, over the course of 46 seasons, Moye has performed more than 2,000 “Nutcracker Suites.”
That kind of repetition may sound insane, but for Moye, it isn’t, because it isn’t truly repetition. Each performance is a little different, just like every step in life.
“There are certain parts of ‘Nutcracker’ that I enjoy every time I play it, like ‘Snow’ and ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’” Moye said. “I still get a charge out of certain parts. And as corny as it sounds, there’s a first time quality to every performance.”
He likes “Waltz of the Flowers” because, he said, he finds it inherently compelling. And when it comes to “Snow,” Tchaikovsky’s score is “one of the more beautiful things and one of the most evocative things in the literature,” he said.
Moye was not raised at the ballet, nor did he always live in a concrete jungle. He was born at Greenwich Hospital and grew up in town with three younger sisters. His first eight years were at Armstrong Court, and he attended a good smattering of Greenwich public schools.
It was there that Moye was introduced to classical music; all third-graders were offered the chance to try an instrument, and his path to cello was more happenstance than deep-seated desire.
“My mother liked the sound of it, and it was free,” Moye said casually.
At first, he didn’t care much for the instrument. His passion lay more with gymnastics, where he specialized in the high bar.
But his musical talent grew until eventually, while he still attended Greenwich High School, he spent Saturdays at Juilliard. During his time at the prestigious arts school, he was in the same class as Yo-Yo Ma.
When he was in his early 20s, Moye made his New York debut at Alice Tully Hall and the 92nd Street Y. The rest is history.
Moye has played with Britney Spears and the late Michael Jackson. He’s the principal cellist at the Westchester Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra and American Composers Orchestra. But his day job, so to speak, is performing six months a year with one of the world’s finest ballet companies.
When Balanchine — the pioneer of American ballet — still directed the New York City Ballet, Moye often found himself in the presence of a man who was hailed as a genius by the world of 20th-century dance.
“He was the real deal, very special,” Moye said. “The music they play at City Ballet is wonderful. Balanchine, you know, was a great musician who picked great music for us to play.”
More than 30 years later, the company is in the process of transitioning its leadership as Peter Martins retires, and new starlets take on Balanchine’s most canonical roles every evening. Still, Moye is there. Though he is only scheduled for six “Nutcrackers” per week, he tends to play seven, when he can.
He has a routine, too. Every day he performs — whether it’s “Nutcracker” or something else — Moye has gone to Il Violino for 35 years. Walking distance from Lincoln Center, the cozy Italian haunt features a signed photo of a younger Moye on the wall, accompanied by a quote from the New York Times.
“He gave the kind of performance that musicians must dream of: Technically polished, interpretatively mature and consistently expressive,” it reads.
Though Moye may be the subject of rave reviews, he doesn’t appear arrogant or pompous. As he walked through the halls backstage at the Koch Theater, he stopped an obviously under-the-weather viola player to check if she was all right, only to be told that his smile always made her feel better.
In addition to lending cheer to Lincoln Center, Moye also has taken it upon himself to add some ambiance. In a musician’s lounge, a two-foot Charlie Brown Christmas Tree was one of the few decorations that gave verve to the otherwise dull room. Its single red ornament dangled from a lopsided limb.
Moye said he brought the spruce into the theater “’cause it’s great, ’cause it’s funny.”
Between shows, he often grabs Starbucks for one of his colleagues. Such small acts of kindness are just part of Moye’s everyday at what he deemed “the best job in the world.”
And then, of course, there’s always another performance of “The Nutcracker” looming on the horizon.
“There’s a real metaphor to approaching life in this,” he said. “There’s a certain way to look at it… Feeling the music is always available to me, if I just open up to it.”