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A Spring 2018 Discussion with David LaMarche Conductor, American Ballet Theatre, at Temerario
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A Spring 2018 Discussion with David LaMarche Conductor, American Ballet Theatre, at Temerario

- Offstage with the Dancers
In Chelsea
Urban, Bold Mexican Cuisine
198 8th Avenue (at 20th)
New York, NY 10011

Happy Hour, Late Bar!
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Pescado a la Talla!

A Spring 2018 Discussion with David LaMarche
Conductor, American Ballet Theatre

Exploring Spring Season Musical Scores

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
May 30, 2018

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

This is a series of questions posed to David LaMarche, Conductor of American Ballet Theatre, which is presenting its Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House, May 14, 2018 to July 7, 2018. David LaMarche has been favorably reviewed as ABT Conductor on these pages for well over a decade. I recently chatted with Maestro LaMarche at Temerario, at 198 Eighth Avenue (at 20th), NYC. (See a testimonial essay about this dinner at Temerario.)

David LaMarche has begun conducting his Spring 2018 performances at Lincoln Center’s Met Opera House. (The full American Ballet Theatre performance schedule is here.) I posed a series of questions, below, about the musical scores for the nine productions, including the two one-act ballets scored to Stravinsky, which he just conducted.

REZ: You conducted the Adolphe Adam score for three uniquely different couples in McKenzie's staging of the Coralli, Perrot, Petipa "Giselle". How did you vary the tempo and mood for each of the three Act II Pas de Deux, featuring Copeland, Abrera, and Murphy as Giselle? How did you vary each of Albrecht's repetitive and exhausting dances to save himself from the Wilis' wrath? What instructions did the three Giselles and the three Albrechts give to you as conductor? In Act II, when the hunting party appears and reappears, tell me about the sharper and muted solo horns, which signal Albrecht's confrontation with his hidden royal lineage.

DLM: Without thinking about it too much, I ended up in a more expansive tempo for Stella Abrera and Cory. It just seemed appropriate to their rhythm that night. Misty, in general, does not like to hang around, so I don’t linger in phrases that long. For Gillian, just a natural feeling “adagio” for a dancer who is inherently musical. Albrecht’s dances become heavier and more insistent as he falters. However, not too slow. The dancer has to look like he’s expiring, but not from my tempo, hopefully. As far as instructions, we rehearsed in the studio, and only in a few places were suggestions offered. There are difficult passages, exposed and requiring a great degree of control, that most dancers performing “Giselle” need musical support for. Misty and Herman altered some of the lifts in Act I, due to a shoulder injury of Herman, so I did receive a last minute heads up about that. The horn calls in Act I are indeed meant to summon the royal party. The first two times they get louder upon repetition, because the royal party is approaching. The third time, by which Albrecht is exposed as a fraud, the initial call is mimed by Hilarion and played loudly. The response to it is muted, as if from a distance. Both are cued by the conductor to our first and third horn players, to fit the stage action.

REZ: On May 22 you conducted McGregor's "AfteRite", and on May 25 you conducted Ratmansky's "Firebird", the double-bill ballets, scored to Stravinsky, presented in Week Two, Spring Season. I still hear your rapturous "Firebird" pas de deux, swirling in my memory. Tell me about the orchestral highlights of the magnetic "Firebird" and of the debut McGregor work, a controversial, contemporary dance, with "Rite of Spring" interpreted by numerous choreographers for over a century. "Firebird" had several lead casts for the week, but "AfterRite" seemed (on brief review) to be danced by the same cast each performance. What was your main focus for each of your conducting dates?

DLM: “Firebird” is a monumental achievement by Stravinsky, thoroughly modern in its extensions of rhythm, harmony, and instrumental capabilities. I’m partial to all the music for Katschei, terrifying and grotesque, and I love the Berceuse because it’s beautiful, but full of regret and sorrow. “Rite of Spring” is, if possible, even more important in the history of twentieth century music. This was a new way to structure music, rhythmic and melodic cells being sliced and arranged like film editing. I have to say, thrilling, but very scary for the conductor! Mostly I just focused on the scores, but there are a few places in “Firebird”, in the Pas de Deux especially, where I have to watch, to align some phrases with the dancers. “AfteRite” actually had two casts, and, as many observed, the ballet seemed significantly altered with the change of cast. Again, I had to be aware of not pushing the tempo in a few places where the choreography was dense.

REZ: I missed the Gala this season, had a conflict. What did you conduct, and what were the memorable moments?

DLM: I conducted excerpts from the new Ratmansky production of “Harlequinade” for the Gala. A group dance from Act I, called “Masques”, and the “Hunt” scene and “Pas des alouettes” from Act II. Some of my fellow musicians would cringe when I say this, but I love Drigo. He was a great melodist and a skilled orchestrator. Not an innovator, but a natural talent.

REZ: You will conduct Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo in Makarova's choreographic version of Petipa's "La Bayadère". This is highly dramatic and, in the Kingdom of the Shades dance for the Corps, a high point of the entire ballet season. What are your instructions for the orchestra for Lane's Nikiya solo with the flower basket and hidden, poisonous snake? The Ludwig Minkus score builds in intensity and speed, and the ballerina must balance the basket precariously, as the theatrics unfold. In contrast, the Dance of The Shades is hypnotic, echoing, ethereal, entrancing. Tell me about the planning process for both balletic highlights.

DLM: The snake solo in “Bayadère” can’t be slow enough. Again, it’s a dance of heartbreak and longing, of resignation. Makarova always says “It’s a gypsy song, no?” She’s right. It should have words. The Shades adagio for the corps de ballet is the original minimalist music, building climax by repetition. The start is always tricky. One ballerina comes out at the top of the ramp in almost complete darkness, takes two steps, and we have to catch her on the third with the right tempo. I always pray...

REZ: "Harlequinade" is Ratmansky's new choreographic interpretation of Petipa's classic tribute to commedia dell'arte. Tell me about the Riccardo Drigo score and what I should be listening for, musically. What musical phrasing will enchant, and is there a special theme for each character, for example, like the themes in "Giselle" for Hilarion and for the hunting party. What is the most challenging segment, orchestrally, for this ballet?

DLM: As I mentioned, “Harlequinade” is boilerplate 19th century ballet music, but with panache and joie de vivre. There are some poignant, arching melodies in the adagios, and effervescent gallops and waltzes. The “sérénade”, with a cameo spot for mandolin, had a second life as a tenor aria, sung by Caruso, Gigli, and others. Actually, some of the mime scenes have pretty fast passagework for the strings which is bit challenging. We have a guest concertmaster for this ballet, the brilliant Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin, so you’ll hear two beautiful solos, and also, our principal cellist, Jonathan Spitz, has a gorgeous solo in Act II. Lots to listen for.

REZ: For MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" you will have the honor of twice conducting the highly popular David Hallberg as Romeo, with an expected, sold-out Opera House. His Juliet both nights will be Isabella Boylston, youthful and energized. How are you preparing for their performances, differently from past years? What stage signals will set the pauses and tempi for the iconic Balcony Pas de Deux? How do you prepare the orchestra for Prokofiev's propulsive, percussive sword fight scenes? It seems difficult to synchronize balletic fencing, as many of the swords look heavy and awkward to propel.

DLM: I don’t know that the pairing of David Hallberg and Isabella Boylston will require anything significantly different in terms of tempi or phrasing for the music. The MacMillan version is so familiar and ingrained in our company’s culture that even dancers to whom it is relatively new, like Isabella, fall into the dramatic pacing easily. And yes, there are actually a few cues to watch for in the Balcony Pas de Deux, in his solo and in the lift sequences. In the sword fight scenes, we just play the music. It’s up to them to clang and stab in rhythm!

REZ: During the McKenzie (after Petipa, after Ivanov) "Swan Lake" performances, your Odette-Odiles will be two highly virtuosic ballerinas, Christine Shevchenko, a more recent principal, and Gillian Murphy, a highly seasoned principal. In the Grand Ballroom Black Swan Pas de Deux, how will you vary Tchaikovsky's sinewy, then electric score? In the adagio Lakeside Pas de Deux, how do you follow the partnered rhythms, as they expand so dramatically? Shevchenko's Siegfried will be Whiteside, and Murphy's will be Hammoudi. And, of course, there are varying von Rothbarts, the lakeside monster with two personas for two male dancers. What are your plans to meet the moment to moment stage cues for the three male leads in each performance?

DLM: “Swan Lake”, and this version in particular, is the cornerstone of our Met season. I don’t think too much about shaping the music to individual ballerinas. I do that, but it just happens like second nature, because I know the music and the choreography so well. I’m not saying I always get it right (so many variables), but I know what it’s supposed to be. Lakeside von Rothbart is essentially a mime role, so we just lay it down and they ride the train. Ballroom von Rothbart features that big variation, the interpolated Russian dance, a flashy violin solo. I’m a little careful there, because there’s a lot to do, and a lot of space to cover. Siegfried’s solos are fairly straightforward, but I still make sure I rehearse with them.

REZ: For the McKenzie-Jones staged (after Petipa, after Gorsky) "Don Quixote", you will conduct performances led by Boylston and Simkin twice and Seo and Whiteside once. The Minkus score allows for comedic devices and a vibrantly stunning Wedding Pas de Deux. This is, like "Swan Lake" and "Giselle", a ballet you have conducted and the orchestra has performed dozens of times, over the years. How do you keep the orchestrations fresh and engaging? Is there any new twist or musical device planned? The lead ballerina's wedding solo includes a fan dance for the requisite 32 fouettés. Do you actually count them while conducting and shift instantaneously if a ballerina needs to improvise after 30?

DLM: I make sure I take a good nap and down some Emergen-C before “Don Q”. It’s relentlessly energetic, so you have to be ready for it. As our former stage manager was fond of saying, “It’s a happy, snappy, clappy ballet”. There’s not much you can do if a few fouettés are shaved off the customary 32. Just plow through and keep smiling. I’m not a big fan of fouettés to begin with. It’s not interesting to me how many you do, it’s how you do them.

REZ: Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream", which debuted in New York last season, includes enormous costumes and head covering. How do you keep the Richard Strauss score interesting and compelling, when much of the dancers' bodies are covered by large costumes? Do you and the leads give each other nuanced cues? What are the musical challenges of the Strauss score, and what are, for you, the highlights?

DLM: “Whipped Cream”, which is a ballet score by Richard Strauss called “Schlagobers”, is probably our second most difficult score, after “Rite of Spring”. Very layered, complex, much detail, but with that intoxicating excess of late Romantic music. I don’t think the costumes get in the way of the communication between conductor and performer. The principals, who have the hardest choreography, don’t wear masks, only the character dancers. For me, the waltz that ends Act I and the Princess Praline Pas de Deux in Act II are perfection. So much fun to conduct.

David LaMarche with His Traditional Margarita
at Temerario
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

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