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Tempo and Ballet Conducting

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#1 AmandaNYC


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Posted 05 June 2001 - 02:16 PM

Just as different dancers dance the same roles differently (or the same dancers on different nights), different conductors conduct the same music differently (or the same conductors on different nights). We still find the ballet recognizable though, for example, Maria Kowroski and Miranda Weese are very different dancers. When a performer cannot handle the technique or gives an interpretation with which we vehemently disagree, however, we might say she or he did not dance the ballet properly-- that the ballet was not presented, in many respects.

Now, what about conductors? Tempo can make a huge difference, esp. considering clean footwork is so important. Last week (Thurs. night, though another attendee told me the same thing happened at an earlier perf), Hugo Fiorato's conducting of the Theme and Variations section of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 left even me, an audience member, out of breath. I thought Miranda Weese deserved a medal just for making it out alive, let along having managed to do most of the footwork precisely. Now, I know NYCB and Balanchine are known for their speed, but this was, well, pushing it. Instead of enjoying the dancing and the ballet, I was shaken out of my reverie-- what's going on? is she going to make it? <<< breathe >>> -- that was what was going on inside my head.

The beauty was lost as one step was barely finished before another one had to start. Instead of an art, I felt I was watching a sport.

What do others think about the responsibilities and effect of conductors on a ballet? Do conductors have more or less freedom than the dancers do? Other thoughts?


#2 Alexandra


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Posted 05 June 2001 - 02:29 PM

Great topic! Thank you for starting it.

I don't know how much leeway conductors have, and it may vary from company to company. There are some stagers who set the tempi (choreographers, too, of course; there's a story that Stravinsky was furious with Diaghilev for coming into his rehearsals and dictating tempi -- wrong!). And there are dancers who have been accused of conducting the conductor (Nureyev, Makarova). And some conductors can be mean. I saw a "Theme" in Copenhagen where the conductor speeded up in the middle of the man's solo (the air turns solo). The victim thought it was because he had complained to the conductor during dress rehearsals that the tempi lagged.)

Your "Theme" example sounds harrowing -- I would agree that if the tempo, whether slow or fast, gets in the way, it's a problem. But whether that was the conductor, the company or the dancer's wishes, I can't say.

#3 Ed Waffle

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Posted 05 June 2001 - 05:53 PM

A few notes:

There is a story about Thomas Beecham who conducted at Covent Garden for many years. He loved conducting for the opera but was in the pit for the Royal Ballet only because he had to be. He is said sometimes to have conducted the rehearsals at one tempo and the performance at another, faster one, purely out of meanness.

Regarding opera, singers have said "the man with the stick always wins." Which is almost always true, since the orchestra will follow the conductor. However, like Alexandra mentions about Nureyev and Makarova sometimes the tempo comes from the stage. There are tapes from the early 1950s from Mexico City with touring companies that included Maria Callas. On more than one occasion she has had to drag both the rest of the singers and the orchestra to the correct tempo.

#4 Mel Johnson

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Posted 05 June 2001 - 08:58 PM

A pity that Beecham didn't enjoy ballet conducting more; he arranged at least three ballets out of the music of Handel that were quite wonderful, musically speaking: "The Triumph of Neptune", "The Great Elopement", and "Love in Bath". The first-named is the only one I know of that was ever produced.

And now back to our originally scheduled topic: Conductors. In the old Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the US, they had two main conductors, Igor Butnikov and Claude Monteux (son of Pierre). Monteux was quite all right; he barely looked at the score, and kept his head up and attentive to the dancers at all times. Butnikov, unfortunately, was his senior, and kept his nose relentlessly in the score, and no one, even he, could predict what tempo he would conduct anything at! One night, the concertmaster, out of desperation, had the orchestra follow HIM, not matter what Mister Butnikov did. When asked by an audience member what he had conducted on a certain night, an orchestra member volunteered, "God only knows, but we PLAYED Act II Swan Lake, Scheherazade, and Gaité Parisienne!"

[ 06-05-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

#5 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 06 June 2001 - 04:15 PM

Things have changed considerably in the Mariinsky Theatre where ballet conductors are seemingly supposed to play concerts from the pit instead of accompanying a ballet. Born ballet conductors like Viktor Fedotov, who conducted without score, are out of fashion. The conductors of today hardly watch the stage, they just play the music, and usually too fast for comfort. When during a rehearsal a dancer stops in the middle of a solo because of some mistake or accident, it sometimes takes ages before the conductor realizes that nobody is dancing, simply because he is with his nose in the score. Titov and Noseda are notorious cases, but none worse than Maestro Gergiev himself. He is a great conductor and you're in for a wonderful musical experience, but it’s also sheer nightmare for the dancers when he tries ballet.

Not only conductors, also orchestras can be mean and can deliberately play "bad" to ruin the performance of a dancer. The Mariinsky Orchestra is a notorious case in point. Once in a "Don Quixote" pas de deux during the fouettés half of the orchestra played a bar behind the rest. It was total chaos but the band kept on playing, as if nothing happened.

#6 Ed Waffle

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Posted 07 June 2001 - 01:16 PM

Off topic, but orchestras can also sabatoge guest conductors they don't like. It happened to Dmitri Mitropolous with the New York Phil in the 1950s and to countless others with other orchestras.

The orchestra will play like gods during rehearsals, giving the conductor a false sense of just how well he is doing. Then on the first night of the series, with critics and contributors in the audience they will play as if sight reading the piece.

There are stories also of orchestras warning guest conductors who are tempermental, overly demanding, or simply not communicating properly. A member of the adminstrative staff will be told to tell the conductor "If he keeps this up, we will play it the way he is conducting it", leaving it to the go-between to decide how to phrase it to the offending stick waver.

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