Fort Worth — Somehow, it is all right these days to present a ballet without a “live” orchestra. Everyone says that this is a matter of money, or the lack thereof. But you would never say such a thing about an opera. Even when presented with a piano or small chamber ensemble, pre-recorded accompaniments to an opera reek of karaoke. Besides, they say, dancers get used to the recording they use for rehearsals and thus modify their performance in such a way that their tempo and that of the recording match. That is followed with the observation that if the conductor cannot hit a tempo right on to precisely match the recording, a live orchestra just gets in the way, forcing the dancer to modify their performance on the fly.
All this was shown to be so much bullpucky on Friday evening when Texas Ballet Theater presented a glorious Swan Lake with the Fort Worth Symphony in the pit. It was the first time TBT had used a live orchestra since the 2008-2009 season, and while there were protests (mainly from the musician’s union) in that first year or so sans live music, the hubbub died down, which could have been dangerous if complacency had permanently set in. But, with things looking up financially, TBT is slowly working the live orchestra back in. Next season, two ballets will feature the FWSO: The Sleeping Beauty and The Merry Widow.
The sound with Swan Lake was overwhelming. Conductor Michael Moricz kept his eye peeled on the dancers on the stage and occasionally made minor adjustments. All though I am not familiar with every step of Swan Lake, there was never a moment when I sensed that a dancer was struggling with a tempo that was too slow or too fast to make it work. This may have happened but if so, it was below the radar. There has been many an opera performance that tottered on disaster that even those familiar with the score failed to notice.
This raises an important point: Who is Michael Moricz? In addition to his work as a composer and arranger of music for big name dancers, he has quite an impressive list of ballet companies on his résumé, from American Ballet Theater to Mark Morris Dance Group.
Why is it that ballet conductors are a breed unto themselves? Why don’t we see Moricz as a guest conductor of the FWSO at a subscription concert or Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducing Swan Lake? Why is it that opera experience is required of any symphony conductor worth their baton, but not with the ballet? What has changed?
Pierre Monteux, a legendary conductor in all fields of music, started out conducting ballet, including the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s still-incredibly-difficult-to-conduct The Rite of Spring. Malcolm Sargent, Anatole Dorati and more recently Gerard Swartz also conducted ballet with no apparent stigma attached.
After all, ballet has its lessons to teach. Unlike in other forms of conducting, the music is not the sole driving force. The movement is as crucial. Some steps, like the male Bluebird solo in Sleeping Beauty, require the dancer to be airborne for the entire time. (For reference, look at this video from the Dutch National Ballet; this solo begins at 1:15).
If the timing is even slightly off, disaster could ensue. Thus, a conductor has to be able to recreate a tempo precisely, every time, and there are thousands of such moments in a ballet. In a way, it is a gift like perfect pitch—but it can be learned.
Therein lies the rub. As far as I know, none of the university/conservatory conducting programs even mentions ballet. You would think that there is more opportunity for young conductors in ballet than in symphony or opera. Perhaps it is the stratification of the classical music industry, a caste system as it were, that permeates every nook and cranny of modern life.
For example, conductors of youth symphonies rarely are invited to their parent orchestra’s podium. The Dallas Symphony is unique in that they utilize the priceless resource of Paul Phillips, who is the conductor on the faculty of Southern Methodist University. The entire time I was in Seattle, Peter Eros, a distinguished conductor with an international reputation who held a similar position with the university, never conducted the Seattle Symphony.
All these observations were roiling around in my mind as Bass Hall darkened before Swan Lake started and all of them vanished when the first notes sounded. That magical meld of composer, choreographer, conductor, dancer and orchestra made it impossible to further ponder any of the them of them in isolation or by what route they all arrived. Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score captures your attention and the skill of the dancers, along with the dramatic presentation on the stage, keeps you riveted right to the tragic ending.
In the cold light of day, you know that they are ballerinas. But at the time, they are swans for sure.
» Go here to read Margaret Putnam's review of the actual ballet performance