Music & Dance
The Joffrey is taking on Romeo & Juliet this season, which has an amazing score by Sergei Prokofiev. We asked conductor Scott Speck some questions about the music, and he shares some wonderful insights with us here.
Can you share some background information about the composer and the development of this score?
One of the great thrills of working in the field of ballet is the opportunity to perform the score to Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev. I am grateful to the Joffrey’s Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater, for programming it. All the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic feel the same way.
Prokofiev was a Russian composer — or more accurately, for much of his life, a Soviet composer. But his work bears very little resemblance to that of his revered countrymen, Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky. Prokofiev had a musical style that was entirely his own. Generally speaking, he could be considered part of the Neoclassical movement — paying tribute to the great Baroque and classical masters with a familiar tonal language and forms such as the “Gavotte”, but with a modern take that could never be mistaken for anything but twentieth-century. But Igor Stravinsky was also a neoclassicist for part of his career, and there is no confusing the two composers. Prokofiev’s style is very melodic — there is hardly a moment that can’t be sung. He got his start in ballet early, moving to Paris and composing for a very young Balanchine and the Ballets Russes. (In fact, Prodigal Son, which the Joffrey Ballet performs in September, was one of his first in the genre.) If he did imitate the great Russian ballet composers in any way, it was in his pacing. The music drives the action in the play admirably, with gorgeous melodies for each major character and theme in the story.
What are some of the particular challenges when it comes to conducting the music of Prokofiev for this ballet?
The biggest challenge is the sheer virtuosity of the writing — the difficulty of the score itself. Being a great pianist, Prokofiev infused his scores with devilish technical challenges that would be much easier to play on the piano than on the various instruments of the orchestra. It takes a truly great orchestra to do justice to the intricacies of his music. Luckily we have the Chicago Philharmonic!
Are there any specific instruments that feature prominently here, and what does that add to the overall feel and mood of the score?
by Catherine L. Tully
What a delight! Christopher Hobson has really come up with lovely arrangements that work for ballet class here on “Sounds of Christmas“. I doubt it was an easy task to make these songs fit for barre and center, but the way he has done it–they sound totally natural.
I can see this being a great fit for classes at any level. Children may recognize familiar Nutcracker tunes such as Waltz of the Flowers or the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. They’ll certainly know favorites such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells!
There is certainly plenty here for adults as well, with tracks such as Santa Baby and O Holy Night. Some are fun, some are beautiful–and all are extremely well crafted. Where a collection of Christmas music tends to make one worry about it being a campy bunch of poorly arranged tracks, instead Hobson has done the opposite and delivered a treasure trove of melodies for use in any ballet class.
Get yourself this Christmas gift–or give it to a teacher you know for the holiday. It’s terrific.
Disclosure: MBSM advertises on 4dancers
Modern Ballet Studio Melodies, Volume 4 by the talented Christopher Hobson is a standout for its variety in style and its inspiring energy. The album contains thirty-six tracks of music with no repeats for the seventeen barre pieces. Hobson plays something for everyone, from Debussy and Prokofiev to the themes from “South Park,” ET and Indiana Jones.
All the music on the disc is dynamic, and the adagio tracks, seven in all, are especially sensitive and lyrical. The two grande allegro tracks are on the slow side, but the rest of the allegro music has a wide enough range of length and tempi to make this CD work for many different class levels. The same is true of the music for barre: most exercises have multiple choices of music. The versatility offered here comes as no surprise; in addition to composing and arranging music for the studio and the stage, Hobson has been commissioned to compose music for the International Dance Teachers Association’s entire ballet syllabus.
Overall Christopher Hobson delivers a delicious mix of brightness, weight, attitude, and spice on Modern Ballet Studio Melodies 4. It’s suitable and inspiring for many levels from intermediate student to professional.0
Today we have Conductor Scott Speck with us to talk about the music for the Joffrey’s upcoming “Russian Masters” program. The company will perform Allegro Brillante (Balanchine/Tchaikovsky), Bells (Possokhov/Rachmaninoff), Adagio (Possokhov/Khachaturian) and Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) – with music by Stravinsky.
What are some of the particular challenges in preparing the Chicago Philharmonic to play for Joffrey’s upcoming Russian Masters program?
This is a brilliant program, masterfully constructed by the Joffrey’s visionary Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater. I love every piece on the program, both choreographically and musically. Together, these pieces present a number of fascinating challenges. Although all the composers in this program came from roughly the same region of the world, their styles are markedly different. The musicians have to shift gears very quickly from music that is suave, elegant and melodic to music that is dissonant and brutal. In addition to that is the question of endurance: this is a physically taxing program for the musicians, as well as for the dancers. One of our piano soloists, Kuang-Hao Huang, has to play an athletic Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and then shift gears and tackle a set of devilishly difficult Rachmaninoff preludes. All of this takes place in the orchestra pit, of course, and I hope that the audience remembers to pay attention to the feats of athleticism taking place underneath the stage as well as on it.
You will be conducting the music of four different composers that evening; Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Khachaturian. Which is the most difficult–and why?
By far our most difficult task — and also the most fun — is preparing Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring. This piece was once considered practically impossible to perform, because it often calls for instruments to play at the extremes of their ranges, with seemingly unpredictable changes in meter. Luckily, the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic are some of the best in the world; they can do anything. They see this piece as a fun challenge, and I’m sure they will simply tear it up. (In a good way!)
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was a very controversial piece when it debuted in 1913 in Paris, danced by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company. Nijinsky’s choreography was part of the reason for this, but how did the music contribute to the audience’s reaction?
Controversial is right — the first performance created an actual riot, one of the few in the history of music! I think the music contributed to this chaos in three ways.
First of all, it is dissonant — or more to the point, it is poly-tonal, meaning that it’s in more than one key at a time. You might have one set of instruments playing it E major while another group play in E-flat. Nobody was used to this kind of “harmony” before.
Secondly, the rhythm is unpredictable, and that is very unsettling. Even the wildest, most dissonant rock music usually has a steady beat. But in this piece, the beat sometimes changes in every measure. The result is that unless you know the piece intimately, you never know what the rhythm is going to do next. There’s even a famous section near the beginning of Part One where at least four different meters are competing for the same moment of time. It’s the sonic equivalent of the earth shifting under you feet.
Third, and finally, we have to admit that the first orchestra to play this work, faced with groundbreaking polyrhythms and polytonality, and trying to make sense of a piece that they had never heard before, probably didn’t play it very well. I have heard a recording from a great orchestra of Paris in the 1940s — over thirty years later, with the same conductor (Pierre Monteux) who led the premiere — and it still didn’t sound very good. The musicians have to know what they are trying to express before they can get it across to the audience. Today, our orchestra musicians are so well-versed in this great masterpiece that we will have the opposite challenge: trying to make it sound unfamiliar enough.
How is the music for this ballet historically significant?
Because of the riot itself, the piece will always be historically significant. But there were much more far-reaching ramifications for the history of music. After Stravinsky’s ground-breaking experiment in polytonality and polyrhythm, every other composer of the 1900s had to define himself or herself in relation to this piece. That is, either they decided to continue Stravinsky’s bold experiment, or they decided to reject it and carry on in spite of it. But everybody had to grapple with it; nobody could ignore it. And so The Rite of Spring changed the course of music history. It is hands down the most important piece of the twentieth century.
Because it is difficult to count, dancers sometimes find Stravinsky’s music challenging. As a conductor, is there anything you can do to try and make this easier for them?
The best thing that the orchestra and I can do for the dancers is to be consistent. The dancers have learned to count and memorize these unpredictable rhythms, and they could probably sing the piece note-for-note, at least the sections in which they are dancing. Now my goal is to present this ever-changing landscape to them consistently. It may be a moving target, but if it moves the same way each time, the dancers will have a good chance of hitting it.
Is there a particular section of the ballet that you particularly enjoy?
My favorite section is the last part, the sacrificial dance, in which the Chosen One dances herself to death. This is the section with the trickiest and least predictable rhythms to play — but if you study and practice it a lot (for decades, in my case!), you get into this marvelous groove that you can really feel in your body. This is the most difficult section for the solo dancer as well — she leaps some 90 times in a matter of minutes.
Because of these challenges, both for the dancers and the orchestra, Le sacre du printemps is very rarely performed. And in the reconstruction of the Nijinsky version, it is almost never performed. These will be the Joffrey Ballet’s final performances during this Centennial year, so I urge people not to miss it.
Joffrey’s “Russian Masters” program runs from Sept. 19th to Sept. 22nd at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
With recent performances in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, Contributor Scott Speck has inspired international acclaim as a conductor of passion, intelligence and winning personality.
Scott Speck’s recent concerts with the Moscow RTV Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky Hall garnered unanimous praise. His gala performances with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Midori, Evelyn Glennie and Olga Kern have highlighted his recent and current seasons as Music Director of the Mobile Symphony. This season he also collaborates intensively with Carnegie Hall for the seventh time as Music Director of the West Michigan Symphony. He was recently named Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet; and he was invited to the White House as Music Director of the Washington Ballet.
In recent seasons Scott Speck has conducted at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, Washington’s Kennedy Center, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, and the Los Angeles Music Center. He has led numerous performances with the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Houston, Chicago (Sinfonietta), Paris, Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing, Vancouver, Romania, Slovakia, Buffalo, Columbus (OH), Honolulu, Louisville, New Orleans, Oregon, Rochester, Florida, and Virginia, among many others.
Previously he held positions as Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet; Music Advisor and Conductor of the Honolulu Symphony; and Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. During a recent tour of Asia he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the China Film Philharmonic in Beijing.
In addition, Scott Speck is the co-author of two of the world’s best-selling books on classical music for a popular audience, Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies. These books have received stellar reviews in both the national and international press and have garnered enthusiastic endorsements from major American orchestras. They have been translated into twenty languages and are available around the world. His third book in the series, Ballet for Dummies, was released to great acclaim as well.
Scott Speck has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Voice of Russia, broadcast throughout the world. His writing has been featured in numerous magazines and journals.
Born in Boston, Scott Speck graduated summa cum laude from Yale University. There he founded and directed the Berkeley Chamber Orchestra, which continues to perform to this day. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, where he founded Concerto Grosso Berlin, an orchestra dedicated to the performances of Baroque and Classical music in a historically informed style. He received his Master’s Degree with highest honors from the University of Southern California, served as a Conducting Fellow at the Aspen School of Music, and studied at the Tanglewood Music Center. He is fluent in English, German and French, has a diploma in Italian, speaks Spanish and has a reading knowledge of Russian.
Scott Speck can be reached at www.scottspeck.org0
At 4dancers we believe that music is a big part of dance, and that the people who conduct it and play it are as much a part of the art form as the dancers themselves. To that end, today we hear from Swedish pianist Anna Buchenhorst, who recently released a CD of ballet music. Learn a little bit about what life is like for her behind the keys…
How did you get involved with playing music for dance?
I was dancing ballet myself from the age of four until eighteen. At that age I choose the piano 100% and it wasn’t until ten years later that I came back into a ballet studio as a pianist. I instantly liked being there!
What do you think the challenges are in terms of playing this type of music?
The challenge is to play helpful music that fits to the steps, and still use beautiful, inspiring music with a big variety. One dancer once told me that she could feel it in her body the whole day, that I had been playing her favorite music for class. That was really nice to hear.
How do you select the music you use for dance?
To me it´s like a sport. Even when I go to the opera, or listen to the radio I can think that this aria, or ballade would be great for an adagio in the middle and so on. I am a collector of great pieces and I want to leave them like they are as much as possible. I also improvise a lot, but not on this record.
What do you like best about playing music for dancers?
To watch the dancers improve, when you pick the right music. It´s functional, fantastic and full of good spirits.
BIO: Anna Buchenhorst is a piano soloist and the full-time ballet pianist of the Royal Swedish Ballet since 2002. She has a repertoire that extends from the baroque to contemporary music, including solo works, chamber music and concertos for piano and orchestra. She has worked together with leading European choreographers and ballet teachers of our time, among them Mats Ek, as well as playing for celebrities such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Neumeier and Dame Beryl Grey.
She graduated as a Master of Fine Arts, under Professor Stella Tjajkovski, at the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg.
In the early nineties she received a scholarship from the Swedish Institute enabling her to become a full-time student of the Liszt Academy in Budapest. With Professor Márta Gulyás as her piano teacher, she refined her virtuosic technique and musical insights.