When barriers are broken, it can be difficult for some to acknowledge the important feat. However, when the very person who accomplished the goal is the culprit, the disconnect becomes more interesting. The story of Orin O’Brien may not be a household tale. Yet, for those around the world of orchestral history, O’Brien’s name became legendary. Director Molly O’Brien seeks her aunt’s story in The Only Girl in the Orchestra. Instead, she finds the bassist far less open to celebration than one might expect.
In 1966, famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein hired Orin to join his bass section. At the time, there were no women in the New York Philharmonic, let alone in the bass section. O’Brien soon became the subject of magazine profiles and New York celebrity. At 87, Orin retires, prompting her niece to kick off the profile.
Molly pushes her aunt to open up, but Orin El reveals she never wanted the spotlight. In her mind, the work speaks for itself. Her mantra- developed from a lesson – has pushed her into a supporting role. Standing tall for one’s friends and family matters in life. For Orin, the lesson transcends the orchestra, pushing others to pursue their goals. By standing “in the shadows,” she does not feel disappointment the way many others do, even though her ambition remains intact. From a mental health perspective, it’s hard not to envy her.
While bassist O’Brien touts her actions and perspective, Director O’Brien’s view of her aunt differs drastically. It shifts The Only Girl In the Orchestra into a different lens. This is not a fawning portrait, though we see plenty of people celebrate Orin. Instead, the portrait grapples with our actions and legacies outside of our awareness.
Even if Orin believes her role in life was a supporting player for her students and niece, she lived a blessed life. After all, Orin became an iconoclastic New York artist living in the big city. Whether she wants to admit it or not, she inspired the next generation of artists to push for careers in the arts, who will once again, inspire artists. She may support the cycle of artistic pursuits, but her role as an idol will never be in doubt.
As a director, Molly O’Brien blends the archival and new footage to perfection. She takes moments from the past and transposes them with beautiful cinematography of modern New York. An empty apartment or the silhouettes of street musicians create gorgeous images. Her eye helps add dynamic storytelling to what could easily be a basic portrait. Instead, there’s more nuance in the footage, allowing her to craft visual moments to pair with emotional testimonials.
The Only Girl in the Orchestra provides a beautiful portrait of an unsung hero. Yet Orin O’Brien’s legacy in friends and family proves every bit as important as her effect on the New York Philharmonic. This is a wonderful short and makes for a perfect blend of tribute and introspection.