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A Fall 2016 Discussion with David LaMarche Conductor, American Ballet Theatre
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A Fall 2016 Discussion with David LaMarche Conductor, American Ballet Theatre

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A Fall 2016 Discussion with David LaMarche
Conductor, American Ballet Theatre

Exploring Fall Season Musical Scores

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
October 3, 2016

(See More ABT Interviews, Reviews, and Candids.)

This is a series of questions posed to David LaMarche, Conductor of American Ballet Theatre, which is soon presenting its Fall Season at the David H. Koch Theater, October 19, 2016 to October 30, 2016. David LaMarche has been favorably reviewed as ABT Conductor on these pages for well over a decade. I recently chatted with Maestro LaMarche in the outdoor patio of Akdeniz Mediterranean Restaurant, at 310 West 53rd Street (between 8th-9th), NYC. (See a testimonial essay about this restaurant.)

David LaMarche will soon conduct Fall 2016 performances at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, including a work in the Fall Gala (The full American Ballet Theatre performance schedule is here.) I posed a series of questions, below, about the musical scores for the four ballets in this year’s Fall Repertory, which he will personally conduct.

REZ: César Franck wrote "Symphonic Variations" in 1886 for piano and orchestra. In 1946 Frederick Ashton used this music for his ballet of the same name, one known for pure classical form. Tell me about this music. I can't wait to hear it as I've been gripped by this composer's other works. Tell me about the score's high points, the piano solos, and the central theme, as you will conduct this ballet five times at Koch Theater, where I see the ballet for the first time.

DLM: The Franck “Symphonic Variations” is a single movement work, through-composed, in the form of a theme and variations. It is essentially a piano concerto, with extensive solo passages for the pianist. There is a slow, harmonically rich variation in 9/8 meter which serves as an adagio for the central couple, and a rousing finale, with some unorthodox modulations of harmony and tempo. The theme itself is rather simple, but Franck was a superb craftsman and made the most of it, as did Ashton with the choreography.

REZ: My review of Ballet Theatre's "Brahms-Haydn Variations" in 2010 mentioned the Twyla Tharp choreography and Brahms score as exuberant, nuanced, and dramatic. I also described the orchestra as brilliantly rhythmical. How are you rehearsing this ballet to maintain Ms. Tharp's high standards, as well as those with such fond memories of past performances? Tell me your impressions of the Brahms, as it expands the dancer's reach, physically and intrinsically.

DLM: It's purely coincidental that two of the opening ballets in our fall season are in theme and variation form. We should have added the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky Theme and Variations to make it a trifecta! Unlike the “Symphonic Variations” of Franck, “Brahms-Haydn Variations” has a separate movement for each variation on the theme. There are eight in all, followed by the grand finale, which is a mini theme and variations in itself. Rhythmic complexity is a hallmark of Brahms, as are polyrhythms, and there are plenty in this piece. The range of dynamic and color in the piece is profound. Tharp's work is dense choreographically, with a lot of complicated partnering that needs to be dispatched quickly and smoothly. From a musical standpoint, this is one of my favorite works in our repertoire, and also my favorite of Twyla Tharp's ballets.

REZ: The Satie "Trois Gymnopédies" is one of my longtime favorite works, the piano as well as orchestral versions. I've always loved Satie's "Trois Gnoisiennes" as well, the score for “Monotones I”. How does Debussy's orchestration of the “Gymnopédies”, used by Frederick Ashton in “Monotones II”, differ in mood and rhythm from the piano version, if at all, and how does the ballet shift, season to season, depending on the ballet master in charge and new casting? The music for both “Monotones” is deliberate and delicate, perfumy and surreal. What cues are you focusing on in conducting "Monotones I and II", and what do you tell your orchestra?

DLM: The “Gymnopédies” in Ashton's Monotones II were actually orchestrated by two different people - Debussy and Alexis Roland Manuel. The “Gnossiennes” in “Monotones I” were orchestrated by John Lanchbery. The most obvious and audible difference from the original version for piano is in the color of the sound, in the instrumental choices made by the arrangers. There's an ethereal quality to the arrangements that is exemplified by the use of harp, celesta, percussion, and high string harmonics. The ballet was new to us last year, so there will be a high level of consistency in both casting and coaching. I think what is important for the orchestra in both “Monotones I and II” is softness of attack, purity of sound, and a sostenuto quality in those very slow tempi.

REZ: The NY ballet audiences have seen Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son", scored to Prokofiev's propulsive score, "L'Enfant Prodige", mostly across the Plaza, but also in 2009 when Ballet Theatre performed the ballet, and with mastery, I should note. The music specifically written for The Siren, The Prodigal Son, and for his Drinking Companions is mesmerizing, during the dramatic scenarios. Tell me your directorial directions regarding this dramatic essence of the music during each of the momentous solo segments in the one-act ballet. How do you keep the tension taut and spellbinding? Please allude to enhancements of the instruments, such as strings and percussion.

DLM: There is a propulsive, mercurial element in the music for The Prodigal Son himself. Quick changes of tempo, meter, and mood mirror his character. Likewise for The Siren - cool, calm, angular and controlled. The Drinking Companions have the crudest, mostly gratingly dissident music - cartoonish, really. But as in all Prokofiev ballets, the extended final resolution is a sublime melody in the key of C Major. One of the highlights, in terms of orchestration, is the clarinet trio written for the scene when the son is beaten and robbed. It's somehow both humorous and disturbing. And there is one astonishing passage right before the end of the ballet in which Prokofiev has three different previously played motifs woven into each other - The Prodigal Son's brief life experiences being displayed before him.

Stuffed Vine Leaves with Rice, Currants, Pine Nuts
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Hot Fresh Chicken Soup
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

David LaMarche with a Beer and Char Grilled Shish Kebab
with Marinated Chunks of Lamb, Rice, and Vegetables
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Salmon Kebab with Fresh Vine Leaves
Stuffed with Marinated Salmon, Char Grilled, with Mixed Greens
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

David LaMarche with Ozge, Our Server from Turkey
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at