People have asked me about my activities as a ballet conductor as opposed to symphonic conducting. My quip response is that when conducting a symphonic concert, I am totally in charge. When conducting ballet, everyone else is in charge! But it does go a little deeper. Ballet conducting is much more collaborative, and the successful conductor must know when to lead with conviction or tactfully cooperate. The primary mission, it seems to me, has two elements, 1) making the dancers look as great and feel as comfortable as they can, which is entirely the result of tempo and timing, and 2) be an advocate for the composer and try to maintain the integrity of the score. Lots of layers, but the result of a beautiful show is well worth the effort!
I did keep a diary recently during a trip to the Tulsa Ballet, which I serve as chief conductor. The work we created was Christopher Wheeldon’s setting of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music is by Felix Mendelssohn, coming from his incidental music to the play, but also incorporating a few other works as well.
I always try to travel the day before my first obligation as seamless travel connections are the exception nowadays. I am staying at an apartment that the Tulsa Ballet leases for visiting choreographers, stagers, and their principal conductor. A cozy little place that I find far superior to hotel living as I can cook!
My first day in the studio. I enjoyed warm greetings from the dancers, which is always a good sign! I floated between several rehearsals which were going on simultaneously, discovering the various tempo variances that have evolved from the DVD of the Company performing the piece a decade or so ago. Each rehearsal has a pianist (as opposed to a recording) , so tempo variance is possible. The music staff and I sit down to go over current metronome marks and staging cues. After a long day, I discovered a wonderful restaurant called The French Hen Bistro. But if I eat like that every night I will a) go broke, and b) NEVER have the guts to go on stage with all those skinny dancers for my bow at the end of the show.
First run-through of the piece in the studio. Studio K at the Tulsa Ballet Studios is an ideal space as it simulates the theater environment with audience configuration. At this point I begin to see how the piece will ultimately come together. I double check tempi and consult with the other members of the artistic staff as to “wiggle room” where these tempi are concerned.
Run through with a different cast. If there are tempo variations to accommodate different dancers, today will start to show that. TB Artistic Director Marcello Angelini likes to keep the tempi consistent amongst the casts, but occasional variances do happen. Luckily, there are only a couple of minor differences.
This is the first run-through that I conduct (with piano). Aside from a bit faster tempo in the pas de deux, of which the dancers gently reminded me, things went pretty well. Marcello asked me to speak at the Founders Society dinner this evening (the elite fund raising group), and I was delighted to do so. Speaking to audiences is a passion of mine, as it creates a special bond that otherwise might not exist, and I am looking for any possible way to make the performance more enjoyable. Understanding is key to appreciation.
We have a run through in studio today that will be streamed live to the TB Facebook following. It is also the studio dress rehearsal with costumes and wigs. This, evidently, went very well, as the artistic staff released the company early and without notes (specific observations from the run of moments that need correction before the next run)!
Day off for the company. I went to Sky Fitness for a workout; did a little grocery shopping; and stopped by the River Spirit Casino (and won for a change). Dinner with Marcello and his wife (and Ballet Mistress for TB) Daniella.
Orchestra reading rehearsal. It was great to see the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra again. They are a most congenial group, even when assigned the task of pit-work. Librarian Mark Faci had created a new set of parts for the piece, and we traversed the score without mishap. Some of the tempi were a little slow to accommodate a “first read,” and will be adjusted when we are in the pit. We used the TSO’s wonderful new rehearsal space for the service.
We spent the morning going over notes from the Friday studio dress rehearsal. One adjustment was made to accommodate my needs, but other than that, the music staff came away unscathed.
This is my really busy day. The morning is off, but I have a 2 and 1/2 hour orchestra rehearsal (which goes well, but consumes all the time allotted) and then a piano run through on stage, back to back. As this is the first run of the show on stage, the piano run through with the Company is primarily for spacing so there is a fair amount of stopping/starting. My tempi seem pretty much in line with what the dancers are expecting, but it is easy with just a pianist in tow. Andrew Lahti, the company pianist, has shadowed me at the orchestra rehearsals, and has helped me keep the tempi consistent. In ballet, even one or two metronome clicks are noticeable. One interesting development, in the famous Wedding March, I am asked to slow a particular section in order to accommodate a quick costume change. So, even the wardrobe department has jurisdiction over the poor conductor! But it’s all to create a great show!
The first dress rehearsal has its speed bumps. There is something about assembling all the moving parts that tends to freak me out a little bit. There are several glitches with tempi, but we are able to read the piece without having to stop. The ballet masters and the artistic director do call us back for about 15-20 minutes after the run to adjust a couple of these tempo problems — the Pas de duex, the scherzo, the song, the prologue, and the fugue. In other words, just about everything that was ballet sensitive, was problematic. Not a good sign.
I went to the morning piano rehearsal with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, but the company and artistic staff were very gracious. We checked a few tempi and things were fine. The evening saw the final dress rehearsal. Tulsa Ballet does a wonderful thing as they make the entire ticket inventory for this dress rehearsal available to underserved populations through several social organizations in Tulsa. We had about half a house, and they seemed to have a wonderful time. Bottom turning into a donkey was quite a hit! Artistically this show went splendidly. I left the pit at the end of the run and the Artistic Director indicated they had no notes for us! A first for me with TB! I did work the orchestra on a couple of spots, but all in all the results were great! We had overcome the pitfalls of the night before.
Opening night! My wife (a former dancer, turned tax accountant) flew in for the weekend! Following the performance we had dinner with Marcello, Daniella, and the dean of a major ballet academy who was in town on an assessment visit for the TB Academy’s accreditation. And through the power of the internet, when we arrived back at the TB apartment, I was able to view a splendid review in the Tulsa World. “Wilson’s pacing was excellent, and he guided the players in phrasing that perfectly underscored the action and emotion of the scene.,” Not bad!
The morning rehearsal saw a fair amount of cleaning from the night before, but relatively few notes for me.
Our second performance was great with lots of energy and seemingly even more precise than the opening show.
Our largest crowd of the weekend arrived for the matinee, and they enjoyed a wonderful performance. All in all a great run.
Travel back to Columbus. And on to the next fun thing!