Ballet orchestras tend to be much worse than symphony orchestras or those that accompany opera. For years, the New York City Ballet Orchestra has been beyond embarrassing, producing not music but a barren hodgepodge of feints in the general direction of what the composer called for, all held together with a leaden hand by the conductor. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra can sound like two entirely unrelated groups, depending not only on who is conducting but whether the music is accompanying dancers or singers. It’s always worse for dance.

With the Opera House Orchestra alternating with the City Ballet Orchestra — a contractual quirk of the City Ballet’s yearly visits to the Kennedy Center — it’s been a race to the bottom.

“Last week, the New York City Ballet Orchestra was in the pit,” wrote Post critic Sarah Kaufman in March 2005. “All three programs were accompanied by spongy, unremarkable and, at certain painful points, flawed performances of what must be its standard fare.”

Yikes. Those are mighty harsh words. (I read them here.)

Now I’ve not heard the orchestras back there, so I can’t say anything about them But I certainly do wonder if they can be that horrible.

In defense of ballet orchestras, though: so often the choreographer destroys the music. It’s very difficult to play some works twice as fast or twice as slow as the music should go. And I have noticed that some ballet conductors aren’t exactly the best, although we worked this year with Martin West, and he was excellent. (And, lucky us, he’s returning to Symphony Silicon Valley next season!) In fact, here’s a clip from a review regarding the maestro:

Two months ago, conductor Martin West stood before the English National Ballet Orchestra, leading a sweeping movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.” He was waiting for the principal ballerina to begin the “Rose Adagio,” a dance requiring her to stand en pointe while being promenaded in a circle by four princes, one at a time.
On a bad night, she might lose her balance and come down from her toes, slowing the action. On a good night — like this one for Agnes Oaks — she would stay up longer than expected, to show off, leaving no time for the promenades.

Such deviations are the bane of the ballet orchestra conductor, whose reputation relies not only on making beautiful music but also on synchronizing stage and sound. Too slow, the ballet feels lethargic. Too fast and the dancers can’t keep up or — even worse — the music ends and the dancers are still moving.

The ideal conductor, it seems, would be an observer, mind reader and problem solver. Fortunately for the San Francisco Ballet, West — the company’s new music director and principal conductor — is a little bit of everything.

Reading that, you can begin to understand what musicians and conductor are up against. It’s not about the music … it’s about those dancers! This is what drives me bonkers. I would suggest that choreographers should make the dance fit the music at its correct tempo. They would, I’m sure, suggest we deal with it. Well, I don’t like to deal. But of course I have to.

In order of preference, this is what I like to do:

  • opera
  • chamber music
  • symphony
  • musical theatre
  • practicing
  • cooking
  • cleaning the bathroom
  • yard work
  • reed making
  • hitting myself in the face
  • ballet music
  • Anyway, I ramble. Mostly I just wanted to say to the reviewer, “Hey! Go easy on the poor ballet orchestra.”

    2 Comments

    1. My list would be similar to yours, except opera would be below hitting myself in the face, and reed making and bathroom cleaning wouldn’t be on the list at all.

      But then, I’m a clarinet player… :-)

    2. Katarina Eriksson


      Unfortunately many coreographers don’t seem to have enough respect for the composer’s work.
      Or maybe they use very strange recordings when they do the ballets.

      I remember vividly the terrible versions we had to play of Mahlers 3rd and Kindertotenlieder some years ago…

      I spent the weeks around christmas playing a balletversion of Tristan – it was an orchestral version of the opera mixed with
      the Wesendonck-lieder. It felt like somebody was sitting with a remote switching between two records.
      And the coreographer used another interpretation of the Tristan-legend, so nothing happened to the right music – during the EH-solo
      (only the first part, but still – 3,5 minutes alone with a dancer) the king was dancing around with swords which made quite a lot of noise….

      But there are highlights – right now we’re playing Romeo&Juliet (Prokofjev), it is almost impossible to destroy that music, don’t you think?