San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 season closer, Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, is one of the heavyweights of modern ballet. As gorgeous as the dancing is, there’s multiple thrills to be found aurally as the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra performs Symphony #9 based on opus 70 from 1945; the Chamber Symphony set to an orchestration of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 from 1960; and Piano Concerto #1 based on the neo-baroque Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra from 1933. Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West will be discussing the history behind Ratmansky’s selections during a May 12 “Meet the Artist” event but here’s a little preview of what the musicians bring to the performances.
Rosemary Jones: Shostakovich’s compositions are not necessarily what we think of as “ballet music.” What do you do in the orchestra to bring to life the composer’s music and the choreographer’s vision?
Martin West: There are challenges to taking a symphonic work and layering on ballet but luckily Alexei is an incredibly musical choreographer. Sometimes people think that conducting for ballet would be constricting or an extra burden on the conductor, but in Alexei’s case you can be free. It’s wonderful to play the pieces as you want. It’s a very satisfying evening musically.
You’ll be addressing some of this in your talk on May 12 but how do these works mark different eras in Shostakovich’s life and how does Ratmansky’s choreography reflect that?
The ninth symphony is big and quite extroverted. It came right after the end of the war and [Shostakovich] chose to do something quite humorous. The 28-minute piece is almost a joke. It was an interesting piece for him to do and caused him to be censored for a second time. In the ballet, the set has these Soviet symbols high above the dancers. Alexei’s work is always full of clever references and he does his own humorous take on the music. I really enjoy watching that one.
Chamber Symphony is an earlier work expanded into a full string orchestra and it is a massive work. Alexei took this and created a ballet dealing with Shostakovich’s relationships with women. Quite a stroke of genius, creating a remarkable ballet for a remarkable piece of music.
On May 12, I’ll talk about all three pieces, concentrating on [each] tie to Shostakovich’s life and what to listen for, the material hidden within the music. We are lucky in San Francisco to have an audience that appreciates the orchestra and wants to understand and appreciate the music.
Do you think it makes a difference to the dancers to have the live music?
Yes! We have 60 to 70 people in the pit willing the dancers to look good. They are playing to propel them to higher and higher levels. That’s something that you can’t achieve with recorded music. You can’t get that visceral feeling from a pair of speakers. What we try to achieve for the dancers is to enhance that symbiotic relationship. If you dance to recorded music, you know what to expect. You know exactly how high you can leap and still come down on a specific note. But when you dance to live music, you can leap higher, you can take risks. If a dancer just wants to take a little more time on a turn, or do more on the acting side, [in the orchestra] we can react to it and add to it.
What’s a typical rehearsal schedule like for the orchestra and for you?
[At the beginning of May] I will be going into the studio with dancers to refresh my memory of the choreography. I will start discussing the pieces with the dancers so I know the parameters when I start rehearsing the orchestra. Ballet music sometimes is criticized for changing too much for the choreography but if you set it off on the right track, you can make it so it sounds like it was always going to go that way. Typically we’ll do six to nine hours, sometimes 12, of practice. We get one stage and tech run and then one dress rehearsal, and then we are playing for performances. We’re quite lucky that we get that much rehearsal here. Some dance orchestras don’t get that tech run. Everyone in the orchestra is a professional and they come to rehearsals knowing what they need to do.
The end of this season marks a couple of big retirements for the orchestra?
Oh yes. My timpani player is retiring after only 30 years [James Gott, principal timpani, joined in 1989]. And the last founding member of the orchestra is retiring. When Steve [Steven D’Amico, principal double bass] leaves, he will have done 45 years of service for the company. He’s been a wonderful advocate for the players. I contribute a lot of the goodwill in how management and musicians get along to Steve’s calm and wise words over the years.
So, do you have any orchestra traditions to mark the end of a season?
I expect this year’s potluck will be bigger [due to the retirements]. Also, whenever we finish a run, as soon as the audience starts to clap, we do a cheer for the orchestra.
For those who want a little more of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s long serving musicians, D’Amico can be heard on the Orchestra’s Grammy Award-winning album Ask Your Mama and will be doing a Meet the Artist talk on May 10. Both D’Amico and Gott have performed on many of the orchestra’s other 18 albums and four DVDs.
Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.