dirac

Music at the Ballet

41 posts in this topic

BTW: Does anyone remember a famous female dancer (?) stopping mid-performance (or hopefully just a dress-rehearsal) of Don Q (?)to stalk off the stage because the tempo was wrong?
Not famous, not DonQ, and not stalk off, but I did see a soloist stop the orchestra in dress rehearsal to request a slower tempo. The difference in the second version was all but imperceptible to me -- extremely subtle -- but after she finished the variation, she thanked the conductor.
Q: Why is it always the horns? The woodwinds might have problems occasionally, but the horns?
Elsewhere on the board, someone (zerbinetta, if I recall correctly and apologies if I don't) explained that horns -- the instruments themselves -- are at least as temperamental when it comes to temperature and humidity as strings :blush: , and string players can compensate more easily with their instruments than brass players with theirs. :)

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.... that horns -- the instruments themselves -- are at least as temperamental when it comes to temperature and humidity as strings :blush: , and string players can compensate more easily with their instruments than brass players with theirs. :)

The weather last Friday was ordinary, yet there were none of those familiar clunkers by the horns or anything else. Not only did Gergiev deliver deep interpretations and proper tempi (no dancers fell), as one would have expected/hoped, but all the ugly sounds disappeared. Now he isn't blowing into the horns, so why? You would think that in NYC there are plenty of fine musicians, so the orchestra members should have the skill to play properly. Was it respect for this conductor, or fear, or were they inspired by him in rehearsal, or excited to play his interpretations? Whatever the reason, what goes wrong with their technical skills when playing for the house conductors?

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Robert Gottlieb's article on NYCB's current season (linked in another thread) includes this statement that shows that special conductors can greatly elevate even a much-scorned orchestra's playing. Speaking of Sterling Hyltin and Benjamin Millepied in Jeu de Cartes, he writes:

[ ... ] both of them must have been stimulated by the one-night-in-a-lifetime conducting of Valery Gergiev. I suspect that what drew him to the State Theater was the chance to bring the idiosyncratic Jeu de Cartes to scintillating life. And—no surprise—his Firebird was ravishing. City Ballet’s orchestra has never before sounded like a great orchestra.
Gergiev's conducting of Eugene Onegin Saturday at the Met elicited pretty good horn playing, too!

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Not only did Gergiev deliver deep interpretations and proper tempi (no dancers fell), as one would have expected/hoped, but all the ugly sounds disappeared. Now he isn't blowing into the horns, so why? You would think that in NYC there are plenty of fine musicians, so the orchestra members should have the skill to play properly. Was it respect for this conductor, or fear, or were they inspired by him in rehearsal, or excited to play his interpretations? Whatever the reason, what goes wrong with their technical skills when playing for the house conductors?

You just put all these elements together and you have the answer. It's just a matter of collective and individual decisions to improve the mess by sustaining discipline or leave mediocre. I'm glad Gergiev delivered, he proved it could be done, with Gottlieb even more impressed than Haglund's. Obviously, the musicians were under a more commanding presence than they are used to, it's normal they'd play better for someone like this; and this may not be something that can be accomplished until a truly great conductor is hired. The dancers are not nearly always consistent either, as is well-known. Of course Gergiev was going to bring out the best in the musicians, just like any great artist is going to get the best results--of course the players are going to respond to a high-energy conductor more than a lower-energy one. It's money, taste, will, and all the obvious things. We'll see if anything happens, that's all. It's probably not going to be possible to figure out how to do without something resembling the Vienna, London and Paris models, but it definitely is at least as much all the house conductors' faults for not being magnetic enough as it is the players. Also, this was made into a special occasion, and special occasions are inevitably going to get more attention. If the company wants a fine orchestra, they can get one. If the powers-that-be don't care enough, they've already proved they can get away with leaving it as it is.

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For twenty years I have tried to find a recording of Swan Lake that was complete, with the full beautiful sound produced by a major orchestra. (In fact, I've always loved Tchaikovsky because he uses almost every instrument in his scores.) So currently I have 3 versions by 3 different Symphony Orchestras, and I can never listen to any of them without every muscle cringing because the tempos are either undanceable (usually too fast) or vary from piece to piece/variation to variation, destroying any continuity of action. (a)

Last November, I went to a concert by our local Symphony Orchestra thematically concerned with "Russian' music/composers. Both Tchaikovsky's Black Swan pdd, and a VERY extensive selection from Prokofiev's R&J (doing most of the major plot points by excerpting from ALL three orchestral suites Prokofiev had originally created for concert performance.) Knowing of this program ahead of time, I had contacted the conductor and orchestra staff to insure that they were played at correct dance(able) tempos. (b)

Q: Why is it always the horns? The woodwinds might have problems occasionally, but the horns? ©

(a) But if the piece is being listened to on a CD or in a concert hall independent of dancing, should those tempos be as great a concern?

(b) I strongly doubt the conductor specifically adjusted his tempos at your personal request.

© Because the horn is an extremely difficult instrument to control. I've heard bobbles from the horns in even major orchestras.

I really wish I could have gotten to that Gergiev evening. Unfortunately I had a bad cold that week. But I suspect he'll be back.

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That's right, the French Horns have a reputation to uphold for being hard to play! That's why they have to fluff a passage or two now and again. :devil:

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Not only did Gergiev deliver deep interpretations and proper tempi (no dancers fell), as one would have expected/hoped, but all the ugly sounds disappeared. Now he isn't blowing into the horns, so why? You would think that in NYC there are plenty of fine musicians, so the orchestra members should have the skill to play properly. Was it respect for this conductor, or fear, or were they inspired by him in rehearsal, or excited to play his interpretations? Whatever the reason, what goes wrong with their technical skills when playing for the house conductors?
You just put all these elements together and you have the answer. It's just a matter of collective and individual decisions to improve the mess by sustaining discipline or leave mediocre. I'm glad Gergiev delivered, he proved it could be done, with Gottlieb even more impressed than Haglund's. Obviously, the musicians were under a more commanding presence than they are used to, it's normal they'd play better for someone like this; and this may not be something that can be accomplished until a truly great conductor is hired.
While these are likely explanations, I have an additional theory. The orchestra (which, if you attended the same perfs as I) sounded particularly ragged during the final two weeks (except Gergiev night), with frequent disagreements between the winds and the strings. Could it be that Mr. Gergiev got more rehearsal time with them than the other conductors?

I tried a web search for NYCB Orchestra's union contract, but it's not publicly visible. I seem to recall that in the past, the musicians were paid overtime for rehearsals not much in excess of the time actually spent accompanying performances. I tend to suspect that Kaplow, Briskin and Mann did not get anything near adequate rehearsal time with the musicians.

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Whatever the reason, what goes wrong with their technical skills when playing for the house conductors?

I'm sure the presence of "house conductors" is part of it. How can musicians respond, how are dancers affected, when their "conductor" is a different face every night and there's no leadership or consistency of musical interpretation?

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I suppose, but a quick review of Dale's casting posts seems to indicate that, at least as assigned, each conductor had his scores. Karoui, e.g., conducted all of the Stravinsky programs. Different conductors? Yes. Different Agons? No.

Why is this stable of conductors necessary, though? In the old days (I see the eyeballs rolling. Sorry), there were just two. Irving and Fiorato shared eight performances per week -- not the seven which are now doled out among four or five conductors.

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I suppose, but a quick review of Dale's casting posts seems to indicate that, at least as assigned, each conductor had his scores. Karoui, e.g., conducted all of the Stravinsky programs. Different conductors? Yes. Different Agons? No.

Why is this stable of conductors necessary, though? In the old days (I see the eyeballs rolling. Sorry), there were just two. Irving and Fiorato shared eight performances per week -- not the seven which are now doled out among four or five conductors.

I was thinking as well of Nutcracker time, when a dancer may not know what tempo to expect until he or she makes an entrance. "Oops - do I have to dance my guts out tonight? will I get someone who actually works with me? can I get all the steps in? can I do anything to slow this maniac down?"

I promise you that if NYCB can't find just one or two time-beaters to share the podium for all 45 Nutcrackers, I'm more happy to volunteer. I may not be able to conduct, but I'd certainly work with the dancers to give them some comfort level.

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Re Gergiev's conducting style: here is part of a post from flipsy, on the NYCB forum:

I never heard the orchestra play better than tonight. Nobody missed a beat, and Firebird was shimmering with life. I actually took a seat on the side upstairs to watch Gergiev conduct Firebird. He doesn't use the baton, but directs with his hands and fingers and his whole body, hovering over the score and then leaping out over it to bring in one section after another. He conducts like a dancer, and in fact is the only conductor I've ever seen who didn't look clumsy when he joined the dancers for the curtain call.
The delicately flicking fingers and supple wrists were very evident in camera shots from the pit during the Met's simulcast of Onegin last Saturday. Intermission video of Gergiev in rehearsal showed his attention to conveying the feeling latent in the musical markings in the score.

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MY ORIGINAL POST: Last November, I went to a concert by our local Symphony Orchestra thematically concerned with "Russian' music/composers. Both Tchaikovsky's Black Swan pdd, and a VERY extensive selection from Prokofiev's R&J (doing most of the major plot points by excerpting from ALL three orchestral suites Prokofiev had originally created for concert performance.) Knowing of this program ahead of time, I had contacted the conductor and orchestra staff to insure that they were played at correct dance(able) tempos. (b)

REPLY QUOTE: (b) I strongly doubt the conductor specifically adjusted his tempos at your personal request.

MY ANSWER: Well maybe in your world, but in mine he took my concerns in hand, and was VERY aware of how that can affect us former dancers and accomodated it, as I said, probably based on his previous experience in Vienna, rather than personally doing so for me, but he DID do it. How do I know? Because I spoke with him and the Orchestra's ED after the performance. Since I do not live in NYC or Boston, my local symphony orchestra's administrators (AD, ED, staff) have always been friendly, interested, perfectly willing to speak with concert attendees and reply promptly to all my emails.

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An article about ballet class pianists that some may find of interest: Click here.

(The article gets a few nit-picky things wrong about ballet technique--there are five positions of the feet, not six; the number of arm positions varies depending upon the method, and there are actually nine directions of the body--everyone seems to forget about poor écarté derrière :clapping: )

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MY ANSWER: Well maybe in your world, but in mine he took my concerns in hand, and was VERY aware of how that can affect us former dancers and accomodated it, as I said, probably based on his previous experience in Vienna, rather than personally doing so for me, but he DID do it. How do I know? Because I spoke with him and the Orchestra's ED after the performance. Since I do not live in NYC or Boston, my local symphony orchestra's administrators (AD, ED, staff) have always been friendly, interested, perfectly willing to speak with concert attendees and reply promptly to all my emails.

My world consists of 45+ years of concert-going, composing, playing, studying, and writing about classical music. I have yet to hear of any performer who would adjust an interpretation based on the advice of an audience member. If your conductor took tempos that agreed with your conception, that is most likely because he had a similar conception of his own already. I can more readily accept that (as I admit you do say) his "previous experience in Vienna" led him to select tempos appropriate for dancers. But however friendly and polite he or his staff may have been, I have a hard time believing he would have changed his interpretation if it had been one you found antipathetic.

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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.

Lotsa great discussion here, but I find this quote particularly interesting. While I think putting Minkus and Adam down as "bad" music is a bit harsh (along with Pugni I kinda go back and forth about what I think of their work but certainly a part of me loves every second of Bayadere--albeit I'd probably never listen to it without the ballet like I do Tchaikovsky, Glazunov or Prokofiev). But what's odd to me and seems lazy is putting Delibes here. Delibes was NOT the typical ballet composer who "churned them out" (even if his first ballet was co writing La Source with Minkus) and indeed no less than Tchaikovsky spoke very highly of both Coppelia and Sylvia saying when he saw Sylvia in France it was the first time he went to a ballet that was staged badly but where all the pleasure and interest lay in the orchestra pit--he goes on at some length of how amazing the score is, and how he'll be reading it over, and bemoans (in the way Tchaikovsky likes to be self deprecating) that Swan Lake will never compare.

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But what's odd to me and seems lazy is putting Delibes here.

Quite right.

Thanks for reviving this thread - it's a good discussion!

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