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What difference does the music make, anyway?

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 10 February 2002 - 12:28 PM

This sentence in today's Washington Post article (by the Post's music critic) on the impending Kirov Opera and Ballet visit struck me as discussable.

"The idea that quality music is secondary to ballet in a way that it isn't to opera has taken root, in this country especially, because ballet orchestras play so poorly."

Here's the context, including the link:

The opera will tour with 350 people, including the Kirov orchestra. The ballet, because of a Kennedy Center labor contract that requires it to use the Kennedy Center Orchestra for all touring ballet performances, will be accompanied by the Center's own opera orchestra. Kaiser says that will help keep the ticket prices for the ballet -- which is sold out -- lower.

"It would be wonderful to bring the ballet orchestra, but typically a ballet audience is not used to paying that kind of price," he says.

But the absence of the Kirov orchestra for the ballet is one of the shortcomings of the festival. The distinctiveness of the Kirov's dance style -- renowned for the grace of its upper-body carriage and aristocratic gesture -- emerged in part because of the strong musical tradition within Mariinsky. Tchaikovsky premiered his "Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty" there, and Glazunov his score to "Raymonda." The idea that quality music is secondary to ballet in a way that it isn't to opera has taken root, in this country especially, because ballet orchestras play so poorly. Hearing a major orchestra accompany a top-flight ballet company has become almost impossible, except at a handful of European opera houses that, like the Kirov, have both ballet and opera under the same roof.


#2 Calliope


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Posted 10 February 2002 - 02:22 PM

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend who plays classical piano. We were discussing music and she kind of snickered at me because the basis of my classical knowledge stems mostly from the ballet.
At first I was a bit annoyed, but then she said something that I stood up. Unless a score is written for the ballet, the music is distorted to accomodate the dancer's. You will rarely find a selection of music recorded by a major orchestra, that sounds the same as it does at the ballet.
I asked if she would ever take a job with a ballet orchestra, and she said only if she found herself arthritic and with poor eyesight.
She's a bit on the harsh side, but when NYCB had their orchestra strike during the Nutcracker a couple of years ago, she was with me and was thrilled it was at least taped music that couldn't be ruined any further.

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 10 February 2002 - 02:34 PM

Those are good points. I think, too, that Kennicutt has something when he makes the comparison to European opera houses that have resident orchestras. I haven't had the privilege of listening to music in Moscow or Leningrad. But even in little Denmark, whose national orchestra is not quite of international standing, the music there that accompanies ballets -- when they've had enough rehearsal -- is excellent, much better than I'm used to. Their "Giselle" and "Coppelia," especially, sound like serious music. I don't know another way to say it. It raises the level of the ballet -- the music is no longer something some feel they have to put up with (especially in the case of "Giselle") but something worthy of attention in its own right.

Conductors, too, can make a difference. The music for a "Raymonda" danced here by the Bolshoi about 15 years ago was astounding when conducted by the Bolshoi's conductor.

I'm beginning to think that part of this is because the ballet audience DOES put up with it. I think Kennicutt hit on something -- it's the WalMart defense (and not a coincidence that we're in a WalMart era of ballet). "I don't want to pay $10 more for a ticket to get better music." Also, because the audience for the arts has become more segmented -- dance people only seeing dance, etc. -- rather than the goodolddays audience where "cultured people" (banned phrase) attended theater, ballet, concerts, opera and therefore had a more universal standard for things like music, design and acting. We put up with more.

Michael Kaiser is quoted in an article about arts funding in the Post that's on Links from a day or two ago -- I hope I'm remembering this right! -- that young people say they can't afford the price of a ballet ticket, yet think nothing of paying $250 for a ticket to Madonna. THAT sure put things into perspective for me. (Swan Lake, starring Madonna, coming soon to a theater near you.)

#4 Calliope


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Posted 10 February 2002 - 09:36 PM

I paid 150 for Madonna but didn't want to shell out the $ for the Stars of the Ballet.
At least with her I knew what I was getting.

#5 Ed Waffle

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 09:43 AM

Alexandra wrote: “Conductors, too, can make a difference.”

A huge difference. After the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater performed Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula” in Motown a few years ago I spoke with a member of the Michigan Opera Theater Orchestra who had been in the pit for all the rehearsals and performances. He is a very skilled musician with years of experience in playing and teaching and also runs a chamber group in the Detroit area. He had high praise for Akira Endo, the conductor with the PBT—which was doubly interesting, since he also had contempt for the music. The music is “by Liszt, arranged by John Lanchberry and I cannot remember a single bar of it.

The MOT pit band (which is quite good) played this score as well as they could, due largely to the efforts of the conductor. I have heard them hack through the scores for other ballets as if they were sight reading (some may have been) but also make the great Tchiakowsky and Stravinsky masterpieces sound divine.

One big problem with music in ballet, of course, is that it is just accompaniment. This is very different from opera—or at least most of the standard rep. In the works for the lyric theater of Wagner, later Verdi, Strauss, Bizet, and Tchiakowsky, the orchestra was as important as any of the singers. In great opera the music from the pit can contradict, reinforce or even comment on the words and vocal line of the singer at key moments. Some of the best orchestral writing Verdi did was for the ballets for operas at the Paris Opera. The intra-act music for “Carmen” is played at symphony concerts.

The importance of the orchestra in opera also gives the conductor pride of place. He will win almost any artistic fight, since he controls the tempo, tone and most importantly the volume of sound coming from the pit. He decides which edition of the score will be used, if interpolated high notes will be taken (always a major point with singers and audiences) and if a singer will be heard as she wishes to be. While there are leaders who are just timebeaters, they are the exception. Which is not to say all opera conductors are good, just that almost all of them are assertive and in control.

Less so, I would think, in ballet. Alexandra also wrote “… the audience for the arts has become more segmented -- dance people only seeing dance, etc. -- rather than the goodolddays audience where "cultured people" (banned phrase) attended theater, ballet, concerts, opera and therefore had a more universal standard for things like music, design and acting.”

This has the ring of truth, even though the “goodolddays” probably weren’t really as good as we would like to think. Audiences have been specialized or segmented for a Opera long time—I know people who have gone to the Metropolitan three or four times a week for thirty years and have never been to a ballet performance—but it does seem that we will put up with substandard aspects of a performance if the core parts of it are intact.

The real test of the importance of music in ballet, though, is the use of taped music—here it is obviously no more than accompaniment. It isn’t done in opera—very small organizations or student productions will have a piano reduction of the score. Other than ballet there are few artistic endeavors that involve music in which taped music is accepted.

#6 katharine kanter

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 10:32 AM

Anyone who's heard a Russian conductor leading the orchestra during a ballet performance, knows exactly what Alexandra is referring to here. They can make the direst of the dire sound like Verdi. Russian conductors love the ballet, and they respect ballet dancers. They consider that opera involves one lot of constraints, and ballet involves another lot of constraints, and, as a conductor involved in a THEATRICAL art form, one simply plunges in and gets on with the constraints.

Ballet dancers are not an unmusical bunch of ninkompoops, simply because they cannot dance a passage as quickly as someone might be able to sing it. Russian conductors realise this. They will slow a passage down, use rubato, and at the end of the day, make music out of it anyway.

On the other hand, what does anyone do, when the choreographer has got no ear for music ? Cranko's massacre of the Tchaikovski score for "Eugene Onegin", or what Neumeier did to Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, injecting blobs of atonal Ligeti into it at random...

I would also say, as an aside, that the current practice of teaching ballet ON THE STEP, rather than on the enchaînement, is not helping us.

Anyway, an odd experience recently: I had HEARD (not seen, because I won't watch such nonsense) the "Afternoon of a Faun" played at a POB triple-bill in December. I think it was the ORCHESTRE COLONNE in the pit. Dull as dishwater. Then, last week, I heard the score again, by a top orchestra, so beautifully played that it was unrecognisable (the fact that I loathe Debussy is irrelevant, for the purpose of this discussion). When played by the second orchestra, it suggested an entirely different choreography, an entirely different mood - and a far higher standard of dancing, as no dancer can fail but be inspired by that sort of playing.

I've been told by French dancers that when they go to dance in Germany, with the big German orchestras, the standard of playing, and conducting, is so high, that "despite the fact that the conductor never once looked at me, I almost fell into the orchestra pit listening, it was all so beautiful", "I felt I was in a different ballet", "I was so excited to hear that, I got all my old enthusiasm back"...and so forth

If I might conclude by an anecdote: some years ago in Germany, I sat at piano rehearsals for the ballet, next to an Austrian opera conductor, who was there parsing the score before conducting it some weeks later. He was a complete novice to the ballet. At the end of the rehearsals, he told me that he had initially been depressed, and even somewhat offended, when asked to take over at the ballet, as he thought it would be an insult to the music. "I was wrong", he said, "I've got to love it so much, I'd almost say I prefer it to the opera. I have been so moved by the work ethic of the dancers, their approach to art, it's given me a new perspective on music."

#7 Helena


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Posted 11 February 2002 - 11:00 AM

I don't think the music in ballet is "just an accompaniment", in Ed Waffle's words, any more than I think the piano in Schubert lieder is "just an accompaniment". It's part of the whole, or should be.

#8 Estelle


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Posted 11 February 2002 - 11:23 AM

At the Paris Opera, sometimes the ballet performances are with the Paris Opera Orchestra, and sometimes it is with other orchestras, mostly the Orchestre Colonne or the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. I've always found bit a bit frustrating that ballet always seems to come second after operas (they wouldn't consider hiring another orchestra for the opera performances); clearly playing some Minkus probably isn't very exciting, but there are a lot of great ballet scores...

I was quite happy to see that at the most recent Conservatoire performance I attended (see "Recent performances"), for once some of the scores were performed live, instead of the usual taped music. The musicians all were students and it was not perfect, but it added much emotion to the performance (and probably it was a good experience for the musicians too).

#9 leibling


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Posted 11 February 2002 - 12:37 PM

As a member of a ballet company that must often use taped music due to financial restraints, I have to say that ANY live music is a welcome relief, even when it is poorly played. I often miss the energy that comes out of the pit- the idea that this is a living art form that has new possibilities each performance. While I was in school, I would sometimes hear the music students complain about being in the "ballet orchestra"- presumably because they found it boring, or perhaps they did not receive the recognition they might if it were stictly an orchestral concert. However, music is music, and everyone involved is contributing to the sucess of any given event. Regarding the changing of tempos- well, I can understand a musician's distress- I would be distressed to see all of the steps in Concerto Barocco changed because a performers lack of ability, but there has to be some leeway. After all, there are many versions of the steps for Concerto Barocco, and I am sure that Bach's Double Violin Concerto has been played in concert at an equal number of different tempi.

In my opinion, the music is never just an accompaniment. The music sets the pace, and guides a dancer through the steps. I cannot dance off the music- I hate being told not to listen in order to accomplish a particular step. More often than not, the music gets me through a difficult phrase of movement, and the music forms a bond between my partner and I. We may be dancing with our backs to each other, but as long as we hear the same thing, we will stay together. My best performances are when I can only hear the music onstage. I wish that more musicians in the pit could realize how essential they are.

#10 felursus


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Posted 14 February 2002 - 12:22 AM

Gosh! There are many, many facets to this discussion. First of all, many ballet scores (Corsaire is a good example) which are really lousy music either by one composer or, as in the case of Corsaire, several composers. There are a number of really good scores specifically composed for ballet - Nutcracker and Coppelia, to cite two. Then there are music scores that have been adapted for ballet and music scores used for ballet.

Balanchine was very specific as to giving importance to sticking to the music as it had been written and NOT compromising the music so that a ballerina could hold a balance or to fit the music to the steps. Other choreographers are happy to tamper with the music to achieve the effects they desire. This displeases musicians mightily. My father was a professional musician and resisted playing for the ballet because of the way much of the music was tampered with. I was told that he once met Balanchine at a party and had a long discussion with him on the subject. (I wasn't in existence at the time, and when I queried him about it, he couldn't remember the details.)

Then there is the problem of the musicians themselves. Not too many companies can afford to have their own orchestra and the money to hire good musicians - as does the NYCB. Where they have to share an orchestra with the opera, the lions share of the orchestral budget usually goes to the opera company. Ballet is usually the "Cinderella" sister in the budget stakes and rarely finds her prince. So even if the musicians are good ones, they are frequently under-rehearsed.

As for the fact that people are willing to pay for Madonna and not for ballet - the opera has the same problem (although perhaps on a higher scale) - people may be willing to pay through the nose for Domingo and Pavarotti or the latest darling of the media, but won't pay for the very latest local talent (who may actually sing better) - unless, or until, he/she has generally been made to seem a really "hot property". Opera has a bad problem with this: unless the singer "looks right" with very few exceptions he/she won't get heard these days - i.e. they better look good on a CD cover photo. In the ballet world, it's a matter of who has had the most/best media exposure. Of course the dancer had better be able to produce - and having some star quality/charisma certainly helps. I think at the moment ABT has been capitalizing on the publicity it can get from some of its male stars. It doesn't have any women with charisma. They tried with Paloma, but unfortunately Paloma has been her own worst enemy and hasn't been able to capitalize on all the free publicity she had (front cover of the NY Times Mag, for example). There just don't seem to be any women in the company with what could be called "star quality" - something that attracts the general public and the media. Perhaps we aren't really going to see any more of those "stars" - such as Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Makarova and Fonteyn. eek.gif

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