Serving Many Masters

An interesting debate has developed regarding the ultimate musical responsibility of the ballet conductor.  Should the conductor’s primary allegiance be to the choreography or the composer? And to what extent should one be influenced by the other?

The following review of the Mariinsky Theater’s recent BAM residency takes Maestro Gergiev to task for his apparent overriding adherence to Tchaikovsky’s amazing score:

And Joe Horowitz makes a very compelling case for defense of the poor composer:

Both, I feel are valid points.  With both pieces in discussion, the composer created the score for a specific production and choreographic concept.  But through the years, new choreographers have brought their own creative ideas to the music and “adapted” architecture and tempi  to suit their own ideas.  One need only look at Tchaikovsky’s much abused Nutcracker to see  a wide swing of tempo variation, arrangement of musical numbers, and cost saving cuts in the orchestration.

I am often reminded of a lesson I had with Aaron Copland back in the late 70’s. He admonished me to follow my own heart and musical intellect, and he insisted that he as a composer learned more about him music from other conductors’ interpretations.  Most composers today would agree that even a haphazard performance is superior to the notion that their musical statements simply collect dust on a library shelf.

A score created for a story told through dance is defined by the dance.  Petipa had detailed instructions for Tchaikovsky as he set out to compose for their collaborations.  Yet it was Stravinsky who developed the scenario for Le Sacre du Printemps, and his frustration with Niijinksy’s choreography is legendary.

A conductor does, however, have certain responsibility to all entities, the composer, the choreographer, and the dancers.  My friend, Geoffrey Fallon authored the following article detailing that third responsibility:

Joe Horowitz also brings up an interesting subject as well, the size of the pit orchestra as it tries to do justice to the lush scores of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.  This is the subject for yet more debate, as most American theaters (outside the major markets) have limited space (and budgets!) to support the orchestral forces.  Gone are the days of a fully staffed Nutcracker, and even Stravinsky grudgingly sanctioned a reduction of Petrouchka.   Yet again, I contend that a live performance of any configuration is superior to a canned performance.