MOBILE, Alabama — Mobile Symphony Orchestra has had an entire summer to recharge its batteries and prepare for a season that includes the return of cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Oct. 24.
MSO music director Scott Speck says the coming season is “no holds barred — that is, there’s now absolutely nothing that we won’t tackle.”
“Within the same season that we bring back Yo-Yo, we are also performing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata — simply three of the most challenging pieces in the entire repertoire. We would never have attempted this, even five years ago.”
The orchestra will open its season Saturday, Sept. 8, with several distinguished guests when it presents “Stars of the Joffrey Ballet” at the Saenger Theatre.
Speck says the presence of dancers onstage with the orchestra requires a few subtle adjustments, as is the case with any guest artist.
“Conducting for ballet is very similar to conducting for a vocal or instrumental soloist,” he says. “There is a certain flow, phrasing and trajectory of the music, which involve an important give-and-take with the soloist in the moment of performance.
“For example, when a violinist holds a particularly gorgeous high note for a split second longer than usual, I need to be sensitive to that, holding the orchestra just a touch until the moment of resolution.
“The same is true of the dance . . . and since the trajectory is visual (and physical) rather than aural, it’s sometimes even easier to discern the needs and the musicality of the dancers. You can sense when a violinist is about to ‘come down’ from a high note. But the laws of gravity tend to determine when the dancer will come down, so that’s a bit easier to predict!”
There are, says Speck, many other ways in which conducting for ballet can help the dancers.
“Is today’s Prince taller than yesterday’s? We can set a slower tempo to accompany his leaps,” Speck says. “Can the ballerina hold her arabesque a second longer tonight? We can stretch the music as she stretches her body. Is the principal couple on fire with energy today? We can speed up the tempo for their coda.
“My baton is completely in sync with each dancer’s movements, and the orchestra is in sync with the stage. This is why live music is so essential to any serious ballet performance.
“When the music is live, each performance is as unique as the dancers themselves — and that’s when the indescribable alchemy of movement and music can take place. That’s when the magic happens.”
For the Joffrey dancers, the MSO has chosen music that works well in an orchestral setting.
“The orchestra will be sitting toward the back of the stage, just as it did for Cirque, so about half of the stage space will be available for the dancers,” Speck says. “We have concentrated on works that involve intricate couples works (pas de deux) — as opposed to the kind of purely athletic leaping dance that would involve charging in circles all around the stage and knocking over a couple of cellists.
“Of course, there are many moments of huge energy, and (to the delight of the cellists) they happen toward the front of the stage.”
Speck says the music includes pieces that are all among his favorites, mostly by living choreographers he has had the honor of working with.
“Edwaard Liang’s ‘Age of Innocence’ is a meditation on a more formal and courtly time, and the pas de deux that we will perform from it, with music by Philip Glass, is gorgeous. Val Caniparoli’s ‘Aria,’ set to music of Handel and including the lovely voice of soprano Megan King, is an amazing solo for a particularly flexible and athletic dancer.”
Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” with music by Arvo Pärt, contains “the single most beautiful pose I have ever seen in a pas de deux,” Speck says. “The audience will know it when they see it.”
Val Caniparoli choreographed “No Other,” a sultry tango set to Richard Rodgers’ “Beneath the Southern Cross” from “Victory at Sea.”
“And probably my favorite is the final duet from Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello,” set to the music of Elliot Goldenthal (famous among other things for his work on Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ film scores). This is an absolutely searing work of emotional intensity — it’s devastating, in fact.
“This is the moment when Othello confronts and punishes Desdemona for a betrayal that in fact did not occur, with Desdemona’s pleading and ultimate acceptance of her fate. Putting this duet at the very end of the program is a risky move, because things don’t go all that well for Desdemona. But I think our audience will understand that we wanted to end on the most powerful possible note.”
Speck describes “Othello” as “the greatest full-length ballet of the past 25 years.”
“In 1998 I had the great fortune to conduct for the San Francisco Ballet’s premiere production of this work. It was a stunner, and since then it’s been performed all over the world.
"Like Verdi’s operatic version, this ballet has an even more compelling dramatic arc than Shakespeare’s play. And one of its great highlights is the final duet.”
Joffrey Ballet now has the original production of “Othello” in its repertoire and will perform the full ballet in spring 2013. Speck will conduct 10 performances at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
Next weekend’s program is titled “Stars of the Joffrey Ballet,” but the Joffrey doesn’t have the hierarchical system favored by many other major ballet companies, with “stars” and “soloists” and “corps” dancers, according to Speck.
“Everyone at the Joffrey is a fantastic dancer, and they all get a chance to shine in Joffrey’s productions. However, I have to say that the six particular dancers we are bringing are among the most stunningly impressive that I have ever seen. And for each ballet that we perform, we are bringing the particular dancers who are most well known for that work.”
In addition to those acclaimed pieces, the orchestra alone will perform the music to some of the most beloved dances from “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“This is music that I have conducted numerous times, both onstage and from the orchestra pit,” Speck says.
“Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev were, along with Stravinsky, the very greatest composers of ballet music. I’ll never forget conducting Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the San Francisco Ballet.
"It’s the only ballet I’ve ever conducted where everyone from the dancers to the costume designers to the stage managers to even the wig-makers came to me and said, ‘My God! That’s gorgeous music!’ ”
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