Retired New York Philharmonic Double Bassist Orin O’Brien is the Reluctant Star of the Documentary ‘The Only Girl in the Orchestra’

Now 88, O’Brien spent more than half of her life with the New York Philharmonic, having been hired by Leonard Bernstein at the age of 30

By David Templeton | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

When celebrated double bassist Orin O’Brien joined the New York Philharmonic in 1966, the fact that she was the organization’s only female musician—its first since harpist Stephanie Goldner, the orchestra’s first female player, left in 1932—was not what she wanted to be attracting attention for. “The year that I joined the Philharmonic, they did a lot of publicity photographs about me, which I was embarrassed about,” O’Brien admits early on in the charming and illuminating short documentary film The Only Girl in the Orchestra. “After all, I was a member of a section. I wasn’t a principal. I wasn’t a soloist. They made a big fuss, so I didn’t like that.”

Whether such discomfort is couched fully in humility or a simple appreciation of accurate storytelling, O’Brien’s aversion to attention is a point she makes more than once throughout the amiably eye-opening 26-minute film, smartly and affectionately directed by Molly O’Brien, Orin’s niece and only living relative. Currently serving as NBC Studio’s head of documentary, Molly O’Brien is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who’s directed several short films and produced dozens of others, including the acclaimed 2000 TV series American High, the 2016 documentary film The Bad Kids, and 2023’s groundbreaking documentary Every Body.

Orin O'Brien, early 1960s with double bass
Orin O’Brien, early 1960s. Photo: Orin O’Brien personal archive

Despite her qualifications, it took her nearly ten years to convince Orin to let her make a film about her. As the director herself states in a bit of narration early on, “I want to tell you about my aunt Orin O’Brien. She’s my last elder. All the rest are gone.”

Orin is Molly’s father’s older sister, and the filmmaker reveals—over a gently dancing medley of photographs from Orin’s early life—that growing up, her aunt was one of the adults she admired most. “She had the life I wanted for myself,” Molly confesses in voiceover. “A New York City artist’s life, an independent woman’s life.”

As the daughter of early film stars George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, Orin O’Brien had seen up close what life as a famous person was like, and though her parents thrived on being recognized in public, she went in the other direction. Enamored of classical music, and especially Beethoven, she sought to join her school orchestra before settling on an instrument. When the instructor offered her a double bass to practice on, she found her voice, especially enjoying the relative invisibility of being part of a section of other double bassists. 

“Can’t everybody be a general,” she says in the film. “Somebody has to be a soldier.”

Now 88, Orin spent more than half of her life—that’s 55 full and accomplished years—with the New York Philharmonic, having been hired by the legendary Leonard Bernstein at the age of 30. 


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Of O’Brien, Bernstein once said, “I love Orin because she is a source of radiance in the orchestra. Her musical involvement is total, and whenever I look in her direction and inevitably find her looking intently back at me, I marvel at this concentration. How does she do it? Has she memorized every note of every part in every work we play? It is as impossible as any other miracle.”

Though she officially retired in 2021—somewhat unceremoniously, reluctantly hanging up her bow during the Covid-19 shutdowns—O’Brien continues to teach the double bass, with scores of former students now working professionally as musicians around the world. Several scenes in The Only Girl in the Orchestra—which officially premiered in November of 2023 at the DOC NYC festival—capture O’Brien working with her students, either one-on-one in her apartment or at the Manhattan School of Music. 

These sequences weave in and around a visual parade of rich archival material, including footage of Orin with the orchestra shortly before the pandemic, her retirement party afterward, and Orin’s reluctant move from the memento-filled home she’s had for over five decades to another in the city. It concludes with a performance by Orin and several of her students on a stage twinkling with lights from an overhead disco ball, the hesitant star of the film doing what she loves with the people she loves, playing her double bass among musicians who clearly love her back.

When Molly announces that the film crew is ready to shoot, Orin remarks to one of the other players, “I told her not to do this, but she keeps disobeying me.” That dynamic, with an always warm and frequently funny Orin challenging the purpose of the very film she is engaged in making, is at the heart of The Only Girl in the Orchestra. Whether playfully scolding her niece for trying too hard to make her seem important or going through old press clippings filled with dated zingers describing O’Brien as “curvy as the double bass she plays,” it is clear that the masterful musician is more comfortable in the background than in the spotlight.

“I really didn’t want to make the film,” concedes Orin, speaking from her home in mid-January. “The way Molly convinced me to do it was by telling me that it could end up bringing more people to classical music, to an appreciation of classical music. And that it would possibly bring more people to the double bass.”

The double bass does feature as a photogenic and dramatically capable co-star in the film. From an early moment, when Orin gives instructions to a helper as to how the instrument is to be carried, through to the end, with an array of musicians and their instruments bathed in swirling light as they play. In another memorable moment, during the move from her suddenly empty apartment, Orin seems to hold her breath as movers cart her collection of basses out of the room while a team of workmen swiftly dismantles her beloved Steinway and packs it up for its journey across town. Later, when Molly describes the instruments as being like children to Orin, her aunt’s response is priceless.


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“Basses are more like pets than children,” she says.

Orin O'Brien smiling playing double bass
Photo: Orin O’Brien personal archive

Another standout moment in the film comes when Orin recalls her time in the double bass section of the Philharmonic. “To play the double bass in an orchestra feels like you are in the belly of a submarine,” she says, “with all the machinery going all around you, and everything happening all at once and millions of notes falling all around you and having to maintain your steadiness within. We look at each other coming off the stage and say, ‘This is why I became a musician. For this experience.’”

Asked during our interview what she loves about the double bass, O’Brien closes her eyes a moment, smiling as she seems to summon the sensation she knows so well. “It’s the vibration,” she says. “You have to hold the instrument close to you to play it properly, and the wood vibrates up and down, and you feel it all through your body. And, of course, it’s the tone, that low tone. I just love it. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

O’Brien has played the works of so many composers throughout her career, she has to have picked up a favorite or two. “Oh, Brahms. I love playing Brahms,” she says. “He wrote such beautiful music for the double bass. Not everyone knows how to do that, but he did.”


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Having worked with Leonard Bernstein, the subject of the acclaimed Bradley Cooper film Maestro, O’Brien, not surprisingly, has opinions about his recent portrayal. “My one-word review is ‘tragic,’” she says. “The film is a tragedy. It’s about all the pain and suffering Bernstein felt in his life, and it’s about the relationship with his wife Felicia, but it’s not really about the music. If it had focused on all the wonderful music he wrote and conducted, it might have been a happier film. I felt very sad watching that movie.”

“Bradley was going to call me, as one of the last living people to have played in the orchestra with Bernstein,” O’Brien continues. “But Bradley never called. If he had, I could have given him a line that might have been the best line in the movie. There was a time when Bernstein was told, ‘Lenny, you can’t make everyone in the world love you,’ and he responded, ‘I haven’t met everybody.’ I love that. It was so Bernstein. So youthful and playful, as if he might be able to make everybody love him if he only had a chance, and I believe he might have.”

O’Brien clearly enjoys talking about Bernstein, whose photograph is not hard to find in her apartment. “He was very paternal,” she says. “He would be like a father to us, even to the players who were older than he was. He had a way of relaxing us, and if we were playing a piece of music we didn’t like or didn’t understand, he would convince us to like it by telling us what he appreciated about it. He would explain his enthusiasm for it, and it would be infectious.”

O’Brien recalls a piece by American composer Milton Babbitt. “None of us liked it,” she says. “It was awful. On the second day of rehearsal, Lenny must have recognized that because he came to rehearsal and told us we’d be having a limerick contest. The opening line had to be, ‘There was a composer named Babbitt.’ Whoever came up with the best limerick would win $50 or something, and the next best would win $40, and on down to $10. It changed everything, improved everyone’s mood. As we rehearsed, we were all imagining what kind of limerick we’d write, and that playfulness ended up going into the music.

“I won the $10 prize, by the way,” she says. “I have no memory of what I wrote, but Lenny liked it. That’s what mattered.”