I Love the Sound of a Symphony in the Morning

I have once again had the opportunity to attend a New York City Ballet orchestra rehearsal of for both Stravinky’s Firebird and Tschaikovsky’s Allegro Brillante starting tonight. It started at 10 am with a volunteer’s explanation of the background of Stravinsky’s composition of the music for Firebird, after which the group of attendees (perhaps 25 in number) was ushered into the seating area as the rehearsal began. The seating area is near the front of the orchestra, the best seats I’m likely to ever have. And the price ($0) was right.

Even more right was the music itself. While we were told that the rehearsal was not a performance but only a practice that would likely be interrupted by the conductor, the reality was that they orchestra initially played the entire music through from beginning to end before the conductor took them through the changes. Our membership thus earned an opportunity to hear what amounted to a full concert. The music, even without the dancers, is simply stunning. Conductor Andrew Litton clearly knows the score in great depth. After running through the entire piece, Litton worked through many sections he wanted to be done differently, covering all of the iconic sections as well as less well-known parts that tie everything together.

One of the most amazing aspects of a professional orchestra is that the conductor can call on it to start anywhere in the lengthy score and they can immediately pick up the music at that place at the proper pace and volume. Their knowledge of the music is total.

After a short break, the orchestra moved into Allegro Brillante, again playing, I believe, the entire piece before going back to clean up a few details that only the conductor heard.

As I sat there, I thought “how lucky I am that on this frigid January morning, I am able to sit in this beautiful classically-styled concert hall and listen to some of the most extraordinary music ever composed being performed by a world-class orchestra.” Every time this happens, I believe I am permanently changed into a slightly better person. It’s analogous, I suppose, to being sick and receiving a super medicine that makes you well again immediately. It may not work forever but while it’s magic is happening, it is sublime.

Supernatural Happenings at NYCB

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform a “working dress rehearsal” of two upcoming ballets. The first was Summerspace choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1958, followed by a performance to Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

I knew nothing of Cunningham or Summerspace, but one of the Lincoln Center docents provided an explanation in the lobby before the rehearsal began. [These lectures are also provided before and during intermissions at actual performances, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history and concepts of the performances] Cunningham was romantically connected to John Cage, described in Wikipedia as a “pioneer of indeterminacy in music” and “one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.” Cage’s studies of Far East philosophies led to the idea of “chance-controlled music.

Thus, the docent explained, Cummingham believed, like Cage, that meaning and art should be separated. The musical score for Summerspace, actually composed by one Morton Feldman, indicated which instruments would play a specified number of notes at which moments in the performance but the notes were to be chosen by the musician on the spot. The orchestra leader’s job was simply to metronomically keep the time of the beats. The choreography was completed in the absence of music which was then “added” to the performance. As described in Wikipedia:

The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text decision-making tool, which uses chance operations to suggest answers to questions one may pose, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage]

If you can accept the idea that art has no meaning, that music should not follow any thematic or melodic structure and that music can be a sequence of random sounds, you might be able to appreciate Summerspace. I am not one of those people, so I was thoroughly put off by seeing the rehearsal involving 4 ballerinas and 2 male dancers accompanied by a grating sequence of beeps and squeaks provided by flutes and a few other instruments. The dancing was more “modern dance” than ballet and involved a lot of running around (and on and off) the stage with random leaping and interactions of sorts among the dancers.  For me, at least, a major part of the magic of ballet arises from the correspondence of the dancers’ feet and the music. I am hardly an “expert” but I know what works for me.

Summerspace was, in any case, a minor distraction. The Piano Concerto rehearsal was next. This stunning piece was performed by a large corps de ballet of 22 dancers and a seven-dancer lead group at the head of which was Sara Mearns who gave the term prima ballerina its full and true meaning. I was transfixed trying to imagine what this ballet would look like when the dancers were in costume. When the rehearsal wound down, I raced home determined to buy tickets if we could get decent seats at an affordable price. We could and I did.

By the time Saturday night arrived, I was afraid I had over-hyped the coming spectacle to my wife but in the event there was no reason for concern.

The first performance was to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, choreography by George Balanchine. Even without any dancing, this would be a great experience because of the glorious music, but with the ballet, it was sublime, a taste of things to come. Then came Summerspace, pretty much as rehearsed.

And then … Sara Mearns and company, again to music by Tschaikovsky, based on a very difficult score but, unlike the rehearsal, with the full orchestra involved and the dancers in beautiful costumes with tiaras both adorned with Swarovski crystals. Watching Mearns was both exhilarating and exhausting. Her gifts seem truly supernatural – she must have been on the stage at full tilt for 90 percent of the entire performance, rarely at rest. Mearns and Russell Janzen were in perfect synchrony throughout and despite the physical demands of their roles, no loss of grace, style or command could be seen.

I remarked at the end that Mearns must need a 24-hour sleep to recover but the truth is likely otherwise. In a 2017 interview, she answered the question: What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?

 A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don’t usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day. [https://www.sakara.com/blogs/mag/sara-mearns-prima-ballerina-nyc-ballet]

That article describes Mearns’ early dance history, starting, unhappily (the ironies), at age 3. Fortunately for those privileged to see her dance as a mature woman in full command of her mind and body, her early unhappiness with dance didn’t last long.

The only other astonishing aspect of this event was that many of the seats in the upper (4th) ring of the theater remained unsold. I had never seen anything like this since our first ballet and it was disconcerting that so many people missed this opportunity. The lesson is to never assume that even the greatest performances will be sold out. We had a perfectly fine view of the entire stage and from the heights could see the action in the back and front equally well. It’s a shame that when there is this disconnect between supply and demand, the seats cannot be made available to schools (for example). I understand there are issues of impact on demand for the “better” higher priced seats. and I don’t know how that can be solved. It just seems tragically wasteful that so much talent and beauty is not witnessed and enjoyed by the maximum number of people, many of whom would be converted, as I was, to fans for life.

 

 

 

Preparation is Nine-Tenths ….

As previously mentioned, one of the great aspects of living in New York City is easy access to both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. NYCB was co-founded by George Balanchine, and Misty Copeland is the first African American female Principal Dancer at ABT. One benefit of a membership is the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I recently attended one of the final orchestra rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at NYCB.

The experience begins with a short lecture by one of the volunteers, in this case, Frank, with 10 years under his belt. He explained how Balanchine had developed the score for this ballet by borrowing music from multiple sources and, in effect, cutting and pasting them together with Mendelssohn’s 45 minutes of original music set to the story, so that in total there was enough music for the dancing.

When admitted to the theater, the rules are made very clear: once the rehearsal begins, no talking, texting, applause, photography, recording. Violations will be met with immediate expulsion. There were about 50 attendees and they all got the message. Throughout the rehearsal they seemed almost spellbound by the music.

Now for my usual disclaimer. I am not qualified to judge musical performance. I know what I like, of course, and while I learned a lot about the construction of music during my futile 4-year struggle to play the classical guitar, that effort ultimately failed. That said, I can say without fear of contradiction that the orchestra at NYCB is every bit as good at what it does as the dancers are in their craft.

By the time of this rehearsal, near to performance date, the musicians well know what is expected of them, but as a collective with different roles at different times, they need a conductor to keep time, tempo and, partly through body language, to guide the expressive power of the parts and the whole of the ensemble. This power is more than just volume – it’s timing and something else, as well, something … mysterious, at least to me.

The conductor, Daniel Capps, had postponed the start time for the rehearsal by a half-hour to 10:30, and exactly at time, he said, “here we go.” He takes the entire orchestra through various parts, commenting after each, requiring some replays, directing some changes: “Strings, at 320….” I cannot make out much of what he is saying. This is serious work and it’s just between him and the musicians. The musicians are at the top of their game and can start and stop anywhere the conductor chooses. He’s like a coach, urging his team to execute complicated plays. In some sense he resembles a magician, with the wand in his right hand keeping time/tempo and his left hand directing/beseeching variations with a fist, an open hand gesture, a pointed finger or splayed fingers for different sections of the orchestra.

Two women sit directly in front of the orchestra, but outside the pit, with sheet music, making notations as the orchestra moves along. I believe they must be notating the changes the conductor is mandating, but I’m not sure.

A musical orchestra is an ultimate example of how cooperation and collaboration can produce something entirely new and special that could not exist otherwise. The conductor hears things (e.g., “sluggishness”) that likely few others hear and when he calls for more pace or more power, the collective gives it to him immediately. This is not a debate; it is a performance and the conductor alone is in charge. On a few occasions he speaks to the orchestra while they are still playing. One of the deepest mysteries for me is how each musician can block out what is going on around her and concentrate on what she must do and exactly when, a talent I never acquired but must be essential to keep playing while the conductor is commenting on what is happening but not stopping for evaluation. Obviously, he won’t do this in the actual performance.

The overarching principle here is that the music is being performed so that dancers can dance to it. There are expectations about pace and timing of pauses that are critical to everything synching up in the final realization of the ballet. This is not just another music concert – it is music in concert with dance before the discerning eyes of ballet cognoscenti who have paid a lot to see everything be done perfectly. And it almost always is.

We had been told at the outset that there would be no dancers on stage during the rehearsal, but in the event a number of ballerinas appear from the sides and cruise across the stage silently. During the famous Wedding March, a male dancer appears, going through steps, and then doing hand stands. More dancers appear and cross the stage. The males reappear, doing pirouettes and other moves, clowning to the music.

I don’t think this activity can be pleasing to the conductor and, indeed, after a short break, we return to the theater to find the curtains closed.

I had forgotten how familiar many of the themes from Midsummer Night were familiar. I’ve always liked Mendelssohn’s music, the New Hebrides Overture in particular. The price of the membership that enabled this unique experience was tiny compared to the value received. This Saturday we will see Le Corsaire at ABT and it’s going to be great.

And the Audience Went Wild

Saturday night we went to see New York City Ballet in a three-part program entitled “Balanchine Meets Peck.” As admonition/confession up front, I once again state that while an enthusiastic fan of ballet, I am not qualified by experience, study or otherwise to be a critic. But I paid for our tickets and am entitled thereby to speak my mind. So I will.

In truth, I am in thrall of what ballet dancers are able to do. Their physical discipline and skills, musical sensibility and endurance are beyond my ability to relate. I noticed on this particular night that I was actually holding my breath as they began the program. I had to remind myself more than once to breathe while I tried to focus on one or two individual dancers at a time while the action swirled around them.

The first section, entitled Principia, choreographed by Justin Peck, listed in the program as Soloist, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor to NYCB. The name roughly translates to “first principles” and is explained on the composer’s website this way:

“The new ballet is called “Principia,” based on the work of Isaac Newton and inspired by the neo-classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed Newton’s Cenotaph (though it was never built). We can think on the order of the universe to better understand our role in it. Ballet is a great vehicle for investigating the basic principles of life—of movement, physics, thought, aesthetics, politics, and behavior.  New York City Ballet is a great company to see right now as they undergo big changes and return to form. We live among the chaos and according to the laws of nature (and society). Let us not forget ourselves for what we have become. Let us remember who we are called to be.”https://sufjan.com/

Even after seeing the performance, that description escapes me. Nevertheless, there was both structure and connection between the dancers and the music in the performance and, though I am no fan of “modern music,” the performance captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The audience was enthusiastic in its applause for what had to be challenging for the dancers.

The middle section, Symphony in Three Movements, was a wholly different matter. The music was by Igor Stravinsky who, for reasons I cannot explain, is one of my favorite classical composers. George Balanchine choreographed the dance; there is nothing I can add in that regard that would be worth reading. Everything about this was magnificent and, in my view, the audience reaction was stronger than for Principia.

Then, the show went off the rails. The third installment, The Times Are Racing, performed to music by Dan Deacon and also choreographed by Peck, was for me a total failure. It had little to nothing to do with ballet, as I understand the concepts. The music was a monotonous repetitive electronica beat that sounded like what I would expect to hear in a video game arcade. The dancers wore what looked like street clothes, including tennis-style shoes, and I could detect no unifying concepts in their movements or any real connection to the music, such as it was. It’s obvious, of course, that only highly skilled dancers could have “enacted” this performance, but it was not “ballet.” It would have been quite at home, I think, at Paul Taylor Dance Company.

I have to report, however, that the audience response, that I do not begin to understand, was more enthusiastic for this piece than either of the first two or, perhaps, the first two combined. Such are the mysteries of the arts.

No need to belabor this, but I am concerned that Justin Peck’s vision for New York City Ballet is going to dominate the future of its culture. That would be very unfortunate, because I believe this approach to “ballet” at one of the city’s great art institutions will ultimately cost it a large share of its audience. Experimentation is a good thing in art – recreating classical works only goes so far – but if NYCB is going to be dominated going forward by the type of music and dance exhibited in The Times Are Racing, it is headed for trouble. Just one person’s opinion, but strongly held.