Jump to content


This site uses cookies. By using this site, you agree to accept cookies, unless you've opted out. (US government web page with instructions to opt out: http://www.usa.gov/optout-instructions.shtml)

Music at the BalletHow awful is it?


  • Please log in to reply
40 replies to this topic

#1 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,952 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 11:08 AM

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Philip Kennicott ponders the phenomenon of lousy music at ballet performances.

http://www.washingto...7022300419.html

Which leads to a troubling thought: Are ballet audiences simply indifferent to music? The evidence isn't encouraging. Ballet orchestras tend to be much worse than symphony orchestras or those that accompany opera. For years, the New York City Ballet Orchestra has been beyond embarrassing, producing not music but a barren hodgepodge of feints in the general direction of what the composer called for, all held together with a leaden hand by the conductor. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra can sound like two entirely unrelated groups, depending not only on who is conducting but whether the music is accompanying dancers or singers. It's always worse for dance.



Comments?

#2 Ostrich

Ostrich

    Bronze Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 340 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 11:22 AM

The problem starts in the studio! Either there's a CD player that regurgitates the same old tunes time after time, or there's a superannuated pianist who's too deaf to hear that he/she is playing at rock show decibel level (well, almost). This explains why at least part of the audience may be oblivious to poor music - well, it's a darn sight better than what they heard when they did ballet.

#3 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 11:25 AM

It's inevitable. As sz told us when some of us were complaining about 'Nutcracker' tempi, the dancers even in NYCB have no say regarding the music--when it is a matter that ought to concern their ability to dance to it. Singers would necessarily have much more power to make suggestions and demands in opera and anything else sung, there is a sense of greater importance to other musicians than dancers, no matter what anyone says. Most of the dancers are also not going to be concerned about the performances of the music other than those which affect their own efforts, i.e., the troubled horns they'll hear but these will not haunt their nights.

The other side is the musicians' side: This is not very nice to say, but if this is the case at that most music-oriented of ballet companies, the NYCB, then there is still, relatively speaking, also some sense that the music is accompanying the dance, that it is secondary. In fact, there is not even 'some sense', it's a fact and it's always been lived with. The musicians may be fine players, but they do not consider it to be the great job working for the big orchestras would be; and they would be right. There's no such thing as a James Levine making a seamless golden orchestra for a ballet company. As to whether it's actually getting worse, I don't have any opinions except for not expecting all that much ever from the ballet orchestras, and being disgusted at undanceable tempi. If Gergiev turned out to be a happy surprise, nevertheless he was a guest conductor, and Haglund's reports that it was an upgrade, but not that much more.

Articles complaining about this, if numerous enough, may help, but I doubt it. I don't like to hear messes at the ballet, but I have never held ballet orchestras to the standard that one holds a symphony orchestra or great opera house orchestra, and it is not even realistic to do so.

There is never going to be a ballet orchestra to achieve what one finds at Bayreuth or even in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so it's best to go on and keep complaining and criticizing and hope that they will get at least slightly less sloppy.

#4 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 11:42 AM

there's a superannuated pianist who's too deaf to hear that he/she is playing at rock show decibel level (well, almost). This explains why at least part of the audience may be oblivious to poor music - well, it's a darn sight better than what they heard when they did ballet.


I'm not quite superannuated, but the ones who are are 'not deaf' and they are doing what they have been told to do. That remark about the 'superannuated pianists who are too deaf to hear' is objectionable. I've been fired from doing ballet classes because I wouldn't do the hokey cornball stuff a lot of ballet teachers want; it's their decision, and they like those old-timers who bang it out. These dance class pianists are not at the top of various musical fields, but they are the ones the ballet masters like; I think Helene mentioned something a few months back about Dianne Chilgren, formerly of NYCB and now with PNB, describing how Balanchine even wanted a different kind of sound for the 'all-business' or rather 'technique-focussed' aspects that are part of dance class. Also, this accounts for none of the audience, it accounts only for those who were in 'ballet class studio' situations, so it accounts only for the dancers themselves who may well like a lousy orchestra better than the pianist who made it possible to keep in time properly, when they weren't able to do it any other way. It also seems to assume that there is a sizeable group of balletgoers who never heard any other music except what they heard in ballet class and then at the performance with the mediocre orchestra. .

#5 bart

bart

    Diamonds Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 7,320 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 12:20 PM

Lots to delight in (or be outraged by) this article, though he makes so many points -- and so wickedly -- that it will take some time to digest. Here's the first bit of in-your-face that struck me as I read:

But it never seems to matter to ballet audiences, who show up nonetheless, and don't clamor for better treatment from the musicians in the pit. Perhaps it's because they've been given a kind of reverse ear training, as they grow up learning the great classics of dance. Throughout much of the 19th century, the music written for ballet was mostly trash. Churned out by composers such as Leon Minkus, Adolphe Adam and Leo Delibes, most ballet scores were aural wallpaper.

Tchaikovsky changed this, setting a standard that choreographers such as George Balanchine (raised very much in the world of Russian ballet that Tchaikovsky helped define) would try to uphold. But choosing good music (and Balanchine, with a few exceptions, chose the best) doesn't mean that performances will be adequate. Minkus and Co. seem to take their revenge: Ruin bad music and who notices? But ruin Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev and you've done some serious artistic mischief.

I really do admire "reverse ear training." The unfairness lies in ascribing this almost exclusively to us ballet fans, who, poor dears, always fear that showing anything by adoration for the orchestra will be punished by the awful retribution of replacing the musicians with tapes.

My general thoughts on this:
(1) Like papetepatrick, I don't expect or want the Berlin Philharmoni. After all, I become absorbed fairly easily in the movements.
(2) the musicians I hear seem quite professional and competent and are probably capable of much more than they end up performing as an ensemble;
(3) I DO resent a conductor who seems oblivious to what is going on onstage, or wishes to dominate it, for whatever reason he or she may have.
(4) If anyone in the pit -- conductor or player -- feels a lowering of status or self-esteem for playing in a ballet orchestra, they should not be there.

#6 volcanohunter

volcanohunter

    Sapphire Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,158 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 12:22 PM

...or there's a superannuated pianist who's too deaf to hear that he/she is playing at rock show decibel level (well, almost)

A friend who graduated from the piano faculty of a Soviet conservatory once explained to me that being assigned as accompanist to a ballet company was considered the least desirable position a pianist could get. Why? Because of the smell. (I guess it negates the charms of staring at half-naked dancers all day.) No offence to the ballet accompanists out there, but it may be that the most gifted musicians don't want to get anywhere near sweaty dance studios.

#7 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 12:59 PM

Throughout much of the 19th century, the music written for ballet was mostly trash. Churned out by composers such as Leon Minkus, Adolphe Adam and Leo Delibes, most ballet scores were aural wallpaper.

Minkus and Co. seem to take their revenge: Ruin bad music and who notices? But ruin Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev and you've done some serious artistic mischief.


I really don't care much for this guy's writing, now that there's been a bit more discussion. While I'm no big fan of Minkus and Adam, it is absurd to say 'ruin bad music and who notices?' What a toffee-nosed thing to say, show off all that high-toned taste. Of course, even mediocre music can sound light years better with a good orchestra than without one, and this is obviously not confined to ballet. Opera is full of trash, and it can be enjoyable if well-performed. Drigo's 'Corsaire' things are hokey and they sound wonderful if well-played even though they might be used at the circus quite effectively (the choreography is pretty corny too, but so what if it's not 'Agon'? I think with Minkus and Adam, those are really the kinds of scores to speed up, if one makes certain to not start racing the dancers again. And it's all a matter of opinion anyway: I love Tchaikovsky, but Pierre Boulez says 'I hate Tchaikovsky and so other people can conduct him'. I assume this would mean he wouldn't worry that 'artistic mischief' had been done, if it's a composer he literally claims to 'hate.' I also don't think the NYCB orchestra is nearly always 'beyond embarassing', although I have decided that people will write anything. The levels of journalism I'm seeing at many big-name journals are beginning to floor me with their twitty pretentiousness and downright stupidity. And Delibes's score for 'Copellia' is not trash, by any means.

And there's even the 'trash' of the concert hall. The piano concertos of Saint-Saens are all considered 'trash' by many highbrow types--not one of whom can toss them off with such aplomb as Aldo Ciccolini so that such idle talk would never even come to mind. It's also, for example, much more common to hear talk about Liszt's various works of 'trash' by critics than it is from professionals. They're involved with doing a good job of making it work.

Bart--I don't think most players in a ballet orchestra consider it at all a demeaning job, but it is obviously not going to be the thing to aspire to any more than a young ballet dancer aspires to spend her entire career in the corps if she could be a soloist. That's just reality. The problem I think comes more from the heads, the ballet masters themselves, and then the conductors, not demanding or not having the time to demand and give priority to the music. In that case, they need to ask for expert advice, and all the big companies could definitely have first-rate orchestras if they gave it a high enough priority. There's also exhaustion, lack of rehearsal, just as there is for the dancers. But the Heads of the Ballet Companies would have it in their power to do some improvement, if they themselves can hear the need and have the taste to give it proper attention. It's simply not realistic to expect a ballet orchestra to ever be able to maintain the level of a symphony orchestra, because the music is never featured in the same pure way; it is secondary to dance.

#8 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 01:17 PM

I agree with Mr. Kennicott about the level of orchestra quality at NYCB - but not with the fact that it goes unnoticed by critics. There's only so many times one can mention that the orchestra sounds dreadful before you just give up including it. The situation is a lot better in state supported companies - both London and Paris have excellent orchestras working with their ballet companies (I assume they're part of the Opera orchestra in both places, correct?)

As for his dismissal of Adam, Delibes and Minkus in the same swipe of the pen (I'll disagree with you PP and defend Adam's score for Giselle - I happen to love it) well, Kennicott has different standards for what makes a good score. First and foremost for ballet, it needs to have a rhythm to support choreography and dance. If that's not there, it can be as sonically beautiful as one wishes and it won't help. Though I think many balletgoers (particularly those raised on Balanchine) are quite discerning about music, we're here to see dancing first. Plenty of great composers couldn't make a decent ballet score.

#9 volcanohunter

volcanohunter

    Sapphire Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,158 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 01:35 PM

Ironically, the quality of music can be better in the provinces than it is in places like New York. Where I live, ballet and opera performances are infrequent, so the local symphony orchestra, which is perfectly respectable, accompanies the performances of the local ballet and opera companies. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra does a much better job of The Nutcracker than the New York City Ballet Orchestra, I can tell you that.

And as Leigh Witchel points out, the in-house ballet companies of state-subsidized opera houses often have excellent orchestras at their disposal. Consider that in order to be eligible for the Vienna Philharmonic, a musician has to be a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and that includes playing for ballet performances:

When Hans Knappertsbusch said that the Philharmonic was "incomparable," his comment was correct in more ways than one. One notable aspect of this incomparability is certainly the unique relationship between the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and the private association known as the Vienna Philharmonic. In accordance with Philharmonic statutes, only a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. Before joining the Philharmonic therefore, one must first successfully audition for a position with the State Opera Orchestra and prove oneself capable over a period of three years before becoming eligible to submit an application for membership in the association of the Vienna Philharmonic. The engagement in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra provides the musicians a financial stability which would be impossible to attain without relinquishing their autonomy to private or corporate sponsors. This independence which the Philharmonic musicians enjoy through the opera is returned in kind due to a higher level of artistic performance gained through the orchestra's experience on the concert podium. Without the Vienna State Opera there would be no Vienna Philharmonic as we know it, and in Vienna it is common knowledge that this symbiosis is advantageous for both institutions, and that it greatly enriches the city's musical life.

http://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at

I've sometimes wondered why a dancer would wish to work at the Vienna State Opera, where opera is definitely king and ballet is something of a poor relation, but I suppose the quality of the orchestral playing would be a very attractive incentive.

#10 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 03:32 PM

This is very important what Leigh and volcanohunter say. Since I don't get to those companies, they come here rarely, and when I have gotten to London and Paris I've never gone to the ballet, I had not much to compare NYCB orchestra with. In student days I was an usher one summer at the Met, where there were pick-up orchestras far inferior to the NYCB orchestra for companies like Stuttgart and Cuban Nacional, so I didn't know there was a vast difference among ballet orchestras. However, this is material Kennicott should have known to if he was going to write about bad ballet orchestra performance. He should have known everything volcanohunter said about small places like Edmonton, but certainly about POB and RB.

If it is true that one of the most unique ballet companies in the world does not have nearly as good an orchestra as it could have -- and this is seemingly well-known, proved by the fact that it has been possible in Vienna, Paris, and London--then it is unquestionably a lesser company than I thought it was, because even if the dancing is the most important thing, a bad orchestra is not excusable in a great company. While this crossing with opera orchestras may be very effective, it still is probably not the only means to get a decent ballet orchestra, and so, if nothing else, NYCB orchestra ought to be pronounced a disgrace.

I disagree with Leigh only in that there are only so many times it can be said to be dreadful before you stop including it; if it is that bad, it should be included in every single review. So there is a certain lack of credibility in NYCB if its orchestra is so grotesque by comparison with other major companies.

#11 Hans

Hans

    Sapphire Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,104 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 04:32 PM

Does NYCB's orchestra also play for New York City Opera? Is it employed by the NYST? If not, maybe the opera orchestra could accompany the ballet (if it's better). Then we'd have better music and the musicians would get more weeks of work.

I haven't been employed as one, but it seems to me that being a ballet class pianist must be a rather thankless job. One must have endless pieces of music memorized and be able to alter them and improvise at the drop of a hat, not to mention play music for an art form one is totally unacquainted with, and the pianist must do all this at the direction of someone with, at best, little music training, and I'm sure it's just as painful for the pianist as it is for me when the students dance at their own tempi anyway.

That said, I couldn't agree more with papeetepatrick that playing bad music badly helps neither the music nor the dancers and musicians, and much ballet music is quite good (and plenty of opera and concert music isn't). I remember reading on this board a while ago (maybe Alexandra wrote it?) that the Kirov orchestra played Adam's score for Giselle as if it were Tchaikovsky, and it made all the difference.

Final thought: Musique dansante is just not the same as concert music, and that doesn't necessarily make it bad. I wouldn't want to listen to "Giselle" without the dancing, but it is perfect for the choreography and action. Music that is illustrating a plot doesn't have to sound like a choir of angels or be a deep study in complexity (the dancing is why we're there, after all) and if one recognizes that such music fulfills the purpose for which it is written and should therefore not be compared to more pretentious music, it does not seem unharmonious (pardon the pun).

#12 Mel Johnson

Mel Johnson

    Diamonds Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,311 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 04:44 PM

I trace the decline of the NYCB Orchestra back to the late 60s, when Balanchine would say, "If you don't like the dancing, close your eyes and listen to the music. We have a wonderful orchestra." Then they went on strike. Balanchine's next word on them? "Don't talk to me about them! They are monsters!" In one action the orchestra had become The Enemy, and the long fade into semi-competence had begun.

#13 zerbinetta

zerbinetta

    Silver Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPip
  • 680 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 05:30 PM

Does NYCB's orchestra also play for New York City Opera? Is it employed by the NYST? If not, maybe the opera orchestra could accompany the ballet (if it's better). Then we'd have better music and the musicians would get more weeks of work.


They are not the same orchestra. There is a good deal of rehearsal overlap between seasons, so it is not feasible. Many of the NYCO's musicians play in the ABT orchestra after the opera closes.

#14 Ostrich

Ostrich

    Bronze Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPip
  • 340 posts

Posted 26 February 2007 - 09:45 PM


there's a superannuated pianist who's too deaf to hear that he/she is playing at rock show decibel level (well, almost). This explains why at least part of the audience may be oblivious to poor music - well, it's a darn sight better than what they heard when they did ballet.


I'm not quite superannuated, but the ones who are are 'not deaf' and they are doing what they have been told to do. That remark about the 'superannuated pianists who are too deaf to hear' is objectionable. I've been fired from doing ballet classes because I wouldn't do the hokey cornball stuff a lot of ballet teachers want; it's their decision, and they like those old-timers who bang it out.


I'm sorry if I offended you, papeetepatrick, I was (partly) joking. However, while there is you and, I am sure, a lot of other excellent pianists, none of this kind have ever found their way into any studio I danced or teach in. And boy, would I love to have a musical pianist! I am fully aware, of course, that the low pay and tiring hours make this very unlikely.

#15 papeetepatrick

papeetepatrick

    Sapphire Circle

  • Inactive Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 2,486 posts

Posted 27 February 2007 - 05:13 AM

No worries, Ostrich. I didn't do a lot of it myself, and usually disliked it when I did. It probably depends on the size (and degree of professionalism) of the class whether a real time-beater is needed. Sometimes these can do it with a certain amount of grace. There was a Hispanic woman named Gladys (don't know the last name) who was popular with many teachers in the 70s and 80s in New York. I heard her once; she was precisely a ballet pianist, knew exactly what was needed, and it sounded okay given that the context required that it sound exactly so. It requires a lot of being mechanical no matter what, and Gladys knew how to deal with huge traffic jams such as those at Steps, with odd birds like the late Bobby Blankshine, when the atmosphere was brash and Broadway. Some of them are good enough to become rehearsal and performance pianists too, of course, but there is a sort who does nothing else but ballet classes and they do serve a purpose, because they're totally reliable.


0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):