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Live Music

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Anyone have a list of ballet companies in the US that continue to have a live orchestra? Or how they manage to pay for it?

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There isn't a single list I could find, and there isn't even a single union that represents ballet orchestras. The ones I could find with references to orchestras on the official sites were:

New York City Ballet

San Francisco Ballet

National Ballet of Canada

Boston Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Pittsburgh Ballet

Houston Ballet

I don't see a reference to an orchestra on the American Ballet Theater site. (Does anyone know if they use pick-up orchestras?)

The orchestra expenses for these organizations are part of the general operating budgets; these are the biggest ballet companies in the country. Orchestra contracts make it difficult for these orgs to tour, as the cost of touring with a live orchestra is prohibitive, and, often, only when special arrangements have been made -- ex: the compromise to have the NYCB orchestra play live every other tour -- can these companies tour.

When smaller companies have live accompaniment at home, it is usually the result of a grant from a company or large donor and/or a special fund for live music. (Oregon Ballet Theater has such a fund.) The orchestra is often a local orchestra, and it may be possible that some of the cost is offset by funds from the orchestra. Oregon Ballet Theater is accompanied by the Portland Symphony Orchestra for many Nutcracker performances, and they were for last fall's program (Concerto Barocco, Orpheus Portrait, and Swan Lake [ Act III].) The Arizona Symphony Orchestra performs Nutcracker for Ballet Arizona, and they'll play for Romeo and Juliet next fall, which was emphasized in the subscription brochure for next season. When on tour, there may be a "house" orchestra, like the Kennedy Center Orchestra, which played for the Joffrey Ballet.

When the ballets are choreographed to chamber music, there is more of an option for live music. OBT was able to use live musicians for last year's spring program in Duo Concertant -- violin and piano -- and Christopher's Wheeldon's Chopin/Weill piece -- violin, piano, and two singers.

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I don't see a reference to an orchestra on the American Ballet Theater site.  (Does anyone know if they use pick-up orchestras?)

I know that for the two videos they taped for PBS (Le Corsaire and The Dream), they were accompanied by a local orchestra in Orange County where the performances were filmed.

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Many thanks, Hockeyfan228, for such a fantastic answer. Wow!

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Pennsylvania Ballet is another company that has its own orchestra and it performs at almost all the company's programs. (For instance, PA Ballet's last triple bill had two ballets to recorded pop music and one ballet was accompanied by a solo pianist.)

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The Joffrey Ballet has an orchestra for its performances; whether its their orchestra seems doubtful. (And the Auditorium Theatre's recent practice of amplifying the orchestra - can you believe it? - seems dubious, to say the least.)

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Jack, if by "their" orchestra you mean one that plays together only for Joffrey performances, I don't know the answer. But the orchestra that plays is consistently the same one, and there is a resident conductor (Leslie Dunner) who is listed on the Joffrey website as "Music Director and Principal Conductor". (Incidentally, it is a small thing to appreciate, but Dunner is one conductor who knows how to move; he does not look awkward or out of place when taking his bows with the company.)

I am grateful that the Joffrey has made the commitment to live music.

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BalletMet Columbus uses The Columbus Symphony Orchestra for all ballets performed in The Ohio Theatre.

I don't know if we have a "music fund" or not.

Clara 76

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Treefrog, I guess I hadn't noticed Dunner's "moving ability" because it's the usual musicians' awkwardness among the dancers that does stand out for me, so thanks for pointing that out. And I too am glad there's an orchestra in the pit; no mistake about it, the Joffrey has taken a big step in the right direction. Now, if the Auditorium management will do its part, we'll hear them as they should be heard. (I thought the amplification problem was worth mentioning on a thread inviting comparisons from different places. I wonder whether any other place pursues this odd-seeming practice?)

bart, you may know better than I, with reference to your second question, that the Miami City Ballet had an orchestra only for Coppelia a few seasons back, because, according to AD Edward Villella's pre-performance remarks, a single donor, if I remember correctly, came forward with the money for that. And last weekend, at the question-and-answer part of another of his talks, in answer to a complaint that an orchestra was missed, he said, first, that when money is tight, he prefers to have recorded music rather than a smaller company or more repetitive repertory, and, second, that if "you guys" can give him $500,000, he'll give back live music "instantly". "We give back what you give us" was his motto.

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Jack, I hear they are working on getting support for next year. Let's hope.

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Jack, I'm curious, do you know why they amplify? Poor acoustics in the hall? A sop to the tastes of younger audiences? A means of cutting back on the number of musicians they need to hire?

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I can't imagine why there is amplification in the Auditorium Theatre. For years I have attended performances there and have been delighted by the wonderful live acoustics. And the Bolshoi Ballet brought with them an orchestra of substantial numbers, nor is the Joffrey's orchestra chamber-orchestra size either.

And years ago, during the brief existence of the Pennsylvania-Milwaukee Ballet (the name of which always sounded more like a railroad than a ballet company to me), a music-lover friend turned up on the ticket line at intermission during a presentation of Balanchine's Nutcracker: He had come out of curiosity to hear what an orchestra sounded like in the pit there, and was so pleased not only by what he had heard, he said, but also by what he had seen on stage - this was the first act of B's Nutcracker, mind you - he wanted a ticket to another performance.

The place seats 3950, but I have eavesdropped from an upper balcony on conversations between stagehands during rehearsal; that's how good the place is. Somebody in a position of control just doesn't get it, I'm afraid. I suspect an example of the corporate mind, one skimming along on the surfaces of things with no deep appreciation of what they help to present.

The Auditorium, by the way, was the project of the acoustical consultant for Carnegie Hall, a pretty good auditorium itself, which sometimes advertises, with justification IMO, that "the great seats are gone, only the good seats are left" (not that there aren't any dead spots, just as there are in the Auditorium). In the Auditorium, Dankmar Adler used his considerable talent, developed by experience, directly, not as consultant to anyone else: His firm, Adler and Sullivan, had built many theatres around Chicago in the 1870's, including, IIRC, a 6000-seat summer opera-festival venue in Grant Park which proved so successful it was not demolished after one season as intended but left up for two or three years until the flimsy construction made demolition mandatory.

(This has been a long reply, but the subject brought me to the boiling point.)

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Thanks for that, Jack. If it were my local house, I'd write a letter of complaint, or at least request an explanation. The musicians, who must hate it even more than the audience, will thank you.

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Here are a few updates, culled from other forums.

Plus: According to a post by hockeyfan228 on the Ballet Arizona forum, that company will have live music (Phoenix Symphony) for 4 of 6 programs next year, their 20th Anniversary Season. Romeo and Juliet, Nutcracker, and two all-Balanchine programs (Agon, Apollo, and Rubies -- and Divertimento 15, Sonnambula, and Theme and Variation). :blush:

Minus: Ballet Met will turn to taped music for Cinderella. The Columbus Symphony Orchestra played for previous performances.

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The Ballet Arizona news is especially heartening. When Ib Andersen participated in the Works & Process event, he responded to the question of what he'd do if he had a larger budget in a blink: More live music.

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Sorry about that... I didn't know because I had to have surgery and therefore, didn't find out until we got into the theatre.

While we would all have preferred to use the CSO, it is better to be financially responsible. I am sure we will continue to use the CSO in the future. We have a long-standing relationship with them; both organizations have helped each other, and both organizations have had to face financial difficulties in years past.

BalletMet is very fortunate to have been able to meet and surpass budgets without a deficit in 26 years. In these arts-unfriendly economic times, sometimes, you've gotta do, what you've gotta do.

Clara 76

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After overhearing very positive intermission comments about the 40-plus member orchestra during a visiting Russian production of Sleeping Beauty, I know that people really do appreciate and respond to live music in a way they never will to canned music. "Isn't it wonderful to have a live orchestra!" Etc., etc. And that was with one of the most dreadful orchestral performances (conductor and certain players) I have ever heard. There was a liveliness of attention and response in the house that was palpable. At least for the first act.

Yet, as the postings on the "women and ballet" topic show, high ticket prices -- which pay for such wonderful enhancements -- are keeping many ballet lovers from the theaters. Company costs are so much higher than ticket revenue, even without a live orchestra. Yet the live music -- if featured in the publicity -- might add signficantly to sales. Quite the dilemma.

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You make some good points Bart.

What is your opinion of ballet companies who have their own orchestras as opposed to those who hire the local symphony?

Clara 76

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I'm going to chime in on that question, Clara76.

Maintaining a ballet orchestra requires a critical mass of performances -- otherwise the musicians can't support themselves -- and takes up a significant chunk of the annual budget. It's not possible for a ballet company to say, well, we had a deficit this year, so recorded music next year, but maybe we'll re-assemble an orchestra again in two years. There are lots of contracts to be broken, not to mention orchestra re-building and general discontent from the audience.

What local orchestras allow a ballet company is a combination of flexibility -- i.e, the ability to "book" the orchestra according to budget and schedule -- and quality. For organizations like Ballet Arizona and Oregon Ballet Theatre, it allows them access to second-rank, but excellent orchestras (Arizona Symphony Orchestra and Portland Symphony Orchestra), who tend to honor the fidelity of the score and who are led by first-rate conductors. For regional orchestras, ballet performances give the players additional opportunities to earn money, often playing scores that are familiar (Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Bach's Concerto for Two Violins) and require less rehearsal and independent study, and the smaller number of performances (one or two weekends, apart from Nutcracker) actually can be an advantage in fitting into a fall-spring schedule.

Two downsides of using a local orchestra are that the orchestra schedule can dictate the ballet schedule, and that a symphony orchestra is not born trained to be sensitive to the musical needs of the dancers.

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Here in south Florida there seems to be a pool of excellent classical musicians that is larger than the obvious demand. The bankruptcy and disbandment of the Florida Philharmonic several years ago has added to this pool.

Last year Miami City Ballet got a donation that permitted live music for much of the season. The Florida Classiscal Orchestra was contracted for this and did a wonderful job. But, the money was spent, and that was it. Back to recorded music in 2005. Ordinary revenue -- given the fact that ticket prices are highly subsidized by donations and fund-raising -- apparently does not permit longer-term solutions.

Florida is a co-called right-to-work state, so only a few groups are unionized, and fewer have collective bargaining agreements. I presume that this makes it cheaper to hire them. On the other hand, it also makes them seem less permanent, more vulnerable to the constant ups and downs of arts funding, and therefore more disposable.

The effect on quality? I don't know, but performance levels were ocnsistently high, and I noticed a surprising rapport between orchestra and dancers at each performance I attended. This despite the relative short-term quality of their relationship. Maybe the youth of the orchestra and the relative novelty/excitement of being in a pit were factors. Certainly they did not have the opportunity of suffering from the oh-no-not-another-Swan-Lake syndrome. Much of this music, however familiar to dance audiences, may not be part of the regular repertoire of symphony musicians. And they may enjoy the novelty.

P.S. I've never understood why the NYCB ballet orchestra, which has the chance to play such a varied repertoire of really exciting music, has such a hard time maintaining quality and energy. Could it be overwork, given the number of performances and the very large size (and, often, difficulty) of the repertoiore?

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P.S.  I've never understood why the NYCB ballet orchestra, which has the chance to play such a varied repertoire of really exciting music, has such a hard time maintaining quality and energy. Could it be overwork, given the number of performances and the very large size (and, often, difficulty) of the repertoiore?

That's an interesting point. Although the union contract limits the number of performances per week, they are still playing week in and week out for 13-14 weeks in the Winter Season, and 8 weeks in the Spring Season, not including rehearsals. While the seasons of larger symphonies are longer -- Seattle Symphony, for example, performs from mid-September through the beginning of July and is also the orchestra for the Seattle Opera for five 2.5 week runs during the same period -- they tend to perform three or four times per week (Thurs-Sun is the standard schedule), with occasional pops concert and school or touring performance thrown in.

Full-time symphonies do have the advantage of first-rate music directors and many guest conductors over the course of the season, which along with focus on a limited number of pieces every every week, can keep them on their toes and provide interpretive challenges. They may be at the service of the conductor-of-the-week or music director, but they are not subservient to another art form. And, except for opera performances, they are on stage, not in the pit.

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Thank you for your valuable information. I was curious because I have read posts where people complained quite a bit about NYCB's orchestra. We are very fortunate with the CSO because they are actually quite good.

I'm not sure however, whether having them would in fact, increase ticket sales.

I am just hoping for 2 things:

1. For an end of the economy problems

&

2. For the arts as a whole to do a better job of making their case

I firmly believe that the arts need to be incorporated into our system of education here. I firmly believe that we'd have a more intelligent, more civilized, and therefore, more peaceful culture.

Clara 76

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Two downsides of using a local orchestra are that the orchestra schedule can dictate the ballet schedule, and that a symphony orchestra is not born trained to be sensitive to the musical needs of the dancers.

Actually in some smaller cities, the two entities might already be sharing the same venue...so that the ballet company might already be juggling it's schedule around the orchestra's... That's one sacrifice I'd be willing to see a company make in order to have live music...

Regarding to sensitivity to dancers' needs musically... is it impossible for the ballet company to retain it's own conductor? Would that be an extremely strange thing, to have the local symphony orchestra conducted by the ballet's conductor rather than it's own? Is it so different from having the orchestra conducted by a guest conductor?

Whenever I see ballet companies & orchestras battling it out, I can't help think that they're shooting themselves in the foot.(feet?)... I can't think who better to increase each other's audience share than those two organizations supporting each other? Ballet gives so many young people a handle on classical music... and a live orchestra adds such a dimension to the dancing... they should be working together as much as possible. Perhaps to counter the subordinate issues, the ballet ought to lend dancers to perform light choreography at symphony evenings, just hang the lighting and the amount of space to dance in... consider it a thankyou to the orchestra cramming itself into the pit. I understand the Hartford Symphony just had a very successful performance with some ballet students of the Hartt School. Of course there were problems of no space, etc.... but even under the compromised circumstances, the musicians and the audience were very enthusiastic (or so I hear).

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You make some very good points. Pooling resources, more performing opportunities all around . . . Amy for President!

Regarding to sensitivity to dancers' needs musically... is it impossible for the ballet company to retain it's own conductor?  Would that be an extremely strange thing, to have the local symphony orchestra conducted by the ballet's conductor rather than it's own?  Is it so different from having the orchestra conducted by a guest conductor?

Can't imagine any reason why it would be strange. :blink: Except that over time, the ballet conductor would be a more familiar personality than most (other) guest conductors.

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Re: amplification and live music, Boston Lyric Opera is planning to mike the stage (but not the performers) of the Schubert Theater, according to this article in the Boston Globe.

Organizations have traditionally sworn that amplification is a response to acoustical failures in concert/opera venues and substandard acoustics in converted venues, like converted movie houses and all-purpose community theaters. The exceptions I've seen have been when young singers are deliberately miked to save their voices -- noted in this article -- and where there is speech -- i.e. a production of The Magic Flute by Vancouver Opera where the dialogue was miked.

Since the age of modern recording, opera singers have chosen to record works in the studio before their voice was ready to carry over the orchestra in a live venue or works that they never performed onstage, fearing the roles would wreck their voices.

There are devoted modern opera fans who can't bear to hear the great opera singers and orchestras in the pre high-fidelity stage because of the limited tone and dynamic range and crackles, pops, and hisses, or who dislike anything that isn't recorded with the clarity of sound that is specific to CD recording. My concern is that modern audiences are so used to amplified sound that they won't be able to listen to a voice or any kind of orchestra without that "sound." So much is determined by what we're used to. When I was growing up, the idea of lipsynching was considered cheap, and the presence of a head microphone was an embarrassment. MTV has made lipsynching/air guitar the norm to the extent that Edvin Marton had to insist that he play the violin live to recorded accompaniment at the World Figure Skating Championship Exhibition Gala. There's no visual discrepancy between Sarah Brightman appearing on a platform dressed in an elaborate fantasy dress, bejeweled with a head microphone.

I, personally, blame the entire phenomenon on Heather Locklear, who made it fashionable to show dark roots with a blond dye job. ( :) )

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