The Ballet Conductor - An interview with Barry Wordsworth

The Hear Here! key work for April is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet. Barry Wordsworth, Music Director of the company, caught up with Stephen Pettitt to answer a few quick questions about this great work:

SP: Tchaikovksy is surely the most famous composer ever of ballet, and Swan Lake is one of his most famous pieces. What's so special about the way he writes ballet music, and why are pieces like Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty so good?  Did he do anything radical?

BW:  All three of Tchaikovsky's ballets are masterworks. The quality of his melodic invention, his theatrical sense of the drama, his ability to write music which mirrors the action on stage, and above all his symphonic approach to these scores set them in a class of their own. Indeed many people at the time felt that they were too symphonic to be used as ballet scores at all!

SP:  When you conduct a ballet, do the dancers have to pay as much attention to you as the musicians do?

BW:  A great deal of the ballet conductor's work is done in the rehearsal studio at piano rehearsals prior to putting the work on stage, just as the opera conductorís work will be done with the cast of singers. The conductor is the fulcrum between the orchestra and the stage, and he must balance the demands of both music and choreography. So his influence on the orchestra and on the dancers is of equal importance.

SP:  Nevertheless there seem to be two varieties of conductor, those who conduct ballet and those who donít. Is there any difference between what they do?

BW: Ideally the ballet conductor must have all the abilities of an opera and symphonic conductor, but he must also understand fully all the disciplines required by ballet and modern dance. In practice all conductors have particular strengths and abilities, so it follows that some conductors will be more naturally suited to one avenue of work than another.

SP:  Classical ballet sometimes appears very mannered, and the vocabulary very precisely defined, whereas modern dance - like that practiced by Bill T Jones's company or the Ballet Rambert - seems much freer, in some ways more directly expressive. Have you a view about that? Which is more effective?  Can Tchaikovsky be danced in modern style without it being considered sacrilegious? 

BW: Both classical ballet and especially modern dance are relative newcomers to the performing arts, and the range of dance styles they offer is amazingly wide. Some movements may seem more mannered than others. But the single thread which runs through both classical ballet and modern dance is that both are simply a human reponse to music through the means of physical movement. Which is the more effective, classical ballet or modern dance, has to do with the subject matter and a particular choreographerís movement vocabulary. But Tchaikovsky can most certainly be danced in modern style, as, importantly, Balanchineís choreography showed. And Matthew Bourneís productions have shed new light on these great scores and brought many new audiences to an awareness of their beauty and importance. That there should be so many versions and interpretations of these works, far from being sacrilegious, is a testimony to their greatness.

Stephen Pettitt

How does the production of the ballet make you appreciate the music differently?  Let us know...

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