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Music at the BalletHow awful is it?


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#16 bart

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 11:32 AM

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).

Thanks for making that point, Hans, It seems to me that this is often lost during discussions of the ballet orchestra topic.

Your remarks also reinforce the idea that someone attending a ballet "utilizes" -- or "processes," or whatever else you want to call it -- music differently from they way he or she would do at an opera or the symphony or for chamber music. An awful lot of us are dedicated to ALL FORms of classical musical performance. Frankly, I don't know many people who JUST go to the ballet, which seems to be what the reviewer is suggesting.

I think also that you have to allow for differences among ballet companies -- the number of performances, the breadth of musical repertoire, etc..

For companies like ABT during its spring season in NYC city and on most of its its tours, playing Corsaire, Don Quixote, and even the more interesting Giselle and Coppelia, on a regular basis can't be very interesting. Even the standard Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev ballet scores must get tedious after a long season.

At the other end of the spectrum, many smaller companies who've managed to hold on to "live music" must find that the pickp-up orchestras or community symphonies they can afford can't really be expected to master every item in a program with equal skill, especially for relatively short runs with limited rehearsal periods. Contemporary rep -- which often uses music specifically composed for the recording studio -- is another variation, usually requiring the use of tape.

#17 volcanohunter

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 01:18 PM

For companies like ABT during its spring season in NYC city and on most of its its tours, playing Corsaire, Don Quixote, and even the more interesting Giselle and Coppelia, on a regular basis can't be very interesting. Even the standard Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev ballet scores must get tedious after a long season.

:) I'm not so sure that the artistic lives of musicians in most "regular" orchestras are always more exalted. Perhaps the New York Philharmonic is not so hard pressed, but orchestras in many cities have to fight to attract audiences. In addition to programs of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, they program "lighter classics," pops concerts, concerts for children, concerts with pop and country singers, and so forth. Consider this concert presented recently where I live:

Video Games Live TM brings the intensity and excitement of the gaming world’s most powerful compositions, as a live orchestra and choir recreate the best video game music on a spectacular stage. The evening combines exclusive video footage and music arrangements, synchronized lighting, solo performers, electronic percussionists and groundbreaking interactive segments to create an explosive one-of-a-kind entertainment experience. Special segments involving the audience will take place during the show, including a live interactive Space Invaders game, and a Frogger competition. New music and exclusive video has been added to the already spectacular line-up of games including MARIO™, ZELDA®, HALO®, METAL GEAR SOLID®, WARCRAFT®, MYST®, FINAL FANTASY®, and KINGDOM HEARTS. The evening also includes the exclusive HALO 3 announcement trailer score.

Shocking, isn't it? But the truth is that the London Symphony Orchestra has been recording film soundtracks for years. The orchestra doesn't include them among the CDs it sells on its web site, but it probably makes more money from them than it does off its recordings of Elgar or Sibelius. There is an interesting juxtaposition of photographs in the autobiography of Steven Staryk, former concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In one photograph he's shown on the jury of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow; in the other he's seen recording a jingle. The financial reality of being a musician, he explains.

#18 bart

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 02:49 PM

I love it. :)

Video Games Live TM brings the intensity and excitement of the gaming world’s most powerful compositions, as a live orchestra and choir recreate the best video game music on a spectacular stage.

Just when I thought pop culture had gone as bizarre as it can go. Is there an annual Best Video Game Music Awards Show in the offing?

#19 Klavier

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 05:46 PM

I'm not too disturbed at someone who calls Minkus or Adam "trash"; when I attended the former's Don Quixote at Boston Ballet a few months ago I marvelled continually at the skill of a composer whose music sounded invariably professional but never seemed to have an idea in its shallow little head. But as musique dansante it worked well, supporting the dances and dancers by providing a framework that kept the story moving along. On the other hand when I heard Mr. Cameron Grant, a perfectly capable pianist, do the Goldberg Variations of Bach while a dozen dancers on stage were performing Jerome Robbins's choreography, I was for once less aware of that masterly work as a piece of music and more as a setting for the interesting and surprising things on stage. The situation is not quite the same as in opera, where one has both singers and orchestra, because there all the performers are engaged in making music, but with dance it's hard to know what element should be primary and which secondary, or if music and dance have or should have equal bearing on the performance. When I attended Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto 2 at NYCB last month, I commented on the lackluster playing of Susan Walters, and wondered if a true bravura soloist in the Russian manner would have brought more of a daredevil quality to the musical performance and also would have energized the dancers. Yet no one else from the forum here mentioned Walters's playing.

I tend to think that there is music that works best as an accompaniment for dance but which would never survive alone in the concert hall (e.g., Giselle, Don Quixote); music originally intended for dance but which is at least as strong in concert performance (Petrouchka, Agon, Miraculous Mandarin, Appalachian Spring, Le Sacre); music not originally intended for dance but which has attained new life as a vehicle for choreography (Bizet Symphony, Goldberg Variations, Brahms/Schoenberg); and music that is too independent or requires too much concentrated listening to succeed as an element in dance (Wheeldon's Klavier, set to the slow movement of Beethoven's Hammerklavier, certainly is in this class for me). One thing also that strikes me, as someone whose musical background is far stronger than his background in dance, is that, despite the important interrelations between music and dance throughout history, how unusual it is to find musical people who take much interest in ballet. I myself did not until a few years ago, and I know several classical musical fanatics who would not set foot in a ballet theater. A good friend who knows and loves Agon as a musical work has never seen the Balanchine choreography, but how can one separate the two? But part of the problem here is, if one can't get to a live performance, there are so few DVDs of many ballets, in contrast to the encyclopedic availability of music available on CD or DVD.

Just some incoherent random thoughts for whatever they're worth.

#20 dirac

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 06:35 PM

I tend to think that there is music that works best as an accompaniment for dance but which would never survive alone in the concert hall (e.g., Giselle, Don Quixote); music originally intended for dance but which is at least as strong in concert performance (Petrouchka, Agon, Miraculous Mandarin, Appalachian Spring, Le Sacre); music not originally intended for dance but which has attained new life as a vehicle for choreography (Bizet Symphony, Goldberg Variations, Brahms/Schoenberg); and music that is too independent or requires too much concentrated listening to succeed as an element in dance (Wheeldon's Klavier, set to the slow movement of Beethoven's Hammerklavier, certainly is in this class for me).


Useful categories.


Just some incoherent random thoughts for whatever they're worth.


Incoherent and random? Not so you'd notice. I certainly wish I could be as incoherent and random on the topic as you, Klavier. :blush:

papeetepatrick writes:

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.


If the critic is permitted the latitude and the space, absolutely. Otherwise not mentioning it is just one more little assist in a collapse of standards.

#21 volcanohunter

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 06:55 PM

I know several classical musical fanatics who would not set foot in a ballet theater. A good friend who knows and loves Agon as a musical work has never seen the Balanchine choreography, but how can one separate the two?

That's very interesting because a few years ago the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a radio series about Stravinsky in which one participant talked about musicians going to NYCB performances just to hear some of the later Stravinsky works that are performed rarely in the concert hall. (He didn't express an opinion on the playing of the NYCB Orchestra.)

#22 Mel Johnson

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 07:56 PM

But back to the "musique dansante" composers for a moment, and a parallel with another composer, working in another genre, comic opera. Franz von Suppe provided genial tunes for shows that may have been a scream in their times, but were all full of topical humor, so without a major updating of the librettos, all the wit is gone, except perhaps to specialists of Austro-Hungarian history, and they aren't exactly thick on the ground today. Minkus, Drigo, and the like were providing "oompah" music that supports perfectly a choreographic content which can still speak to all of us today.

#23 Quiggin

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 10:07 PM

Klavier,
I agree with you wholeheartedly about music and dance and find your three categories most helpful. Regarding the third, I think that no one should ever choreograph to Beethoven (or Mahler). Beethoven's music is too saturated and self-questioning and complete to have dance set to it. Balanchine, once a composer himself (he composed music for Mravinsky's--who was then, in turn, a poet--lyrics) had impeccable taste in these matters. Only once did he approach Mozart directly, and only then a divertimento, albeit lovely and haunting.

#24 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 01:14 PM

That really depends on the choreographer. If I recall correctly, Balanchine also said that Les Noces was undanceable. His taste was impeccable - for him. Other choreographers respond better to heavier music than he did.

Regarding how many times one can complain about the same topic in a review - I believe in the idealism of upholding standards, but I've been through this. It gets really old to the reader after about the fourth article with the same complaint phrased the same way - there are only so many different ways you can say "the horns sucked yet again."

#25 4mrdncr

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 02:36 PM

The "Big" Symphony Orchestra vs. the (small or less professional?) Ballet Orchestra...

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. :blush: My trade-off for wanting to hear a particular variation not usually performed, or to hear it in the context of the original Act in which it appeared. At least I knew the Vienna orchestra soundtrack of the Nureyev/Fonteyn SL was correct tempo since they had to dance to it. Or, I assumed the same for my Bolshoi recording of R&J.

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. And luckily our conductor had worked previously for several years in Vienna (with the State Opera Orchestra I believe) and so had conducted numerous ballet performances and understood my concern. I was satisfied by the results when I attended the concert.


Smaller ballet companies are usually relegated to using pre-recorded music, or a "pick-up" orchestra, but I also remember larger companies doing the same. For example, I remember ABT bringing it's conductor on tour to Los Angeles, but not their orchestra, and so having to rely on the same "pick-up" of experienced (or not) instrumentalists. I believe the Joffrey did the same, or used mostly recorded music for many pieces.
If those orchestra players had also worked in the film industry, at least they should have been experienced with quick tempo changes. (Which always makes me wonder why no one thinks to use film composers to produce new ballet scores since they are so experienced with variations in length and tempi and conveying dramatic info thru music. Though Goldenthal's score for Othello is not my favorite.)

I also remember the L.A.Philarmonic complaining (c. mid '80's) about having to share the Music Center/Dorothy Chandler Pavillion dressing rooms with visiting dance companies and having to endure "smelly tights drying in the bathrooms". One of the reasons I think those dance companies were very glad to decamp to the OCPAC when it finally became available. And now the OCPAC, too, has constructed a separate concert hall, so their OC Orchestra doesn't have to share the space either.

Of course I recently witnessed an orchestra's unaccostumed speed forcing a dancer to compensate it mid-performance of a variation. It made me wonder if there had been a rehearsal before-hand, or any opportunity for the dancer(s) to "fine-tune" this with the orchestra.

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? I definately remember the "diva" attitude, but understood her frustration, and the controversey it produced. (Maybe that was the last time journalistic complaints about ballet orchestras 'reached a crescendo'.)

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

#26 carbro

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 02:53 PM

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. :)

#27 drb

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 03:24 PM

.... 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?

#28 bart

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 03:31 PM

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!

#29 papeetepatrick

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 04:57 PM

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.

#30 Klavier

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Posted 28 February 2007 - 05:45 PM

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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