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Twenty-five years of live music celebrated at PNB

During the current run of the Director’s Choice, and the upcoming month of “Nutcracker” performances, Pacific Northwest Ballet audiences will enjoy something that very few dance fans experience these days.
Pacific Northwest Ballet music director/principal conductor Emil de Cou, conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.
Emil de Cou. Photo: Scott Suchman
“Today most ballet companies don’t have an orchestra or only perform with a very small group of musicians hired for the occasion,” said Emil de Cou, PNB’s music director and principal conductor. Here in Seattle, the orchestra’s 50+ musicians not only wow audiences on a regular basis, they also convert choreographers to the advantages of live music.

“Choreographers like control and the predictability of recorded music but when they see what a grand group that PNB Orchestra is, they know it is first class and full of musicians who love to play for the ballet,” said de Cou.
To celebrate their 25th anniversary as PNB Orchestra, the group also received their own solo moment, playing a joyful “Praeludium” from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 40, to appreciative applause during Director’s Choice performances.

After joining PNB in 2011, de Cou quickly caught on that this group of musicians were more than just players in the pit. During his first “Nutcracker,” he was introduced to such customs as Big Hair Night. “At first, I just thought, wow, they like different hair styles in Seattle,” he recalled. “Then I found out that they dress up differently throughout the run. And organize meals round a theme, like English Romantic Novelists or Political Writers. It became clear that this orchestra does things together like a family.”

The PNB Orchestra was formally organized in 1989, and 23 founding members still play for the company. However the history of the live music at PNB started in 1975, when Henry Holt, the music director of Seattle Opera, served as the ballet’s first conductor for “Pulcinella” and “Nutcracker.” He was followed on the podium by Richard Buckley, associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, and composer Gerhard Samuel.

Then, in 1983, Steward Kershaw arrived in Seattle to take over as music director and conductor. An experienced ballet conductor, the silver-haired Englishman commanded respect for the position and the musicians, helping to form the current orchestra and winning accolades from Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times and other critics.

Kershaw stayed at PNB until 2009. Today he is the music director for Auburn Symphony Orchestra. Company pianist/conductor Allan Dameron then led the orchestra until de Cou’s arrival in Seattle.
Previously an associate conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra and a principal pops conductor for San Francisco Symphony, de Cou has conducted for American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and Hong Kong Ballet as well as numerous symphony orchestras across the country.

The difference between a ballet orchestra and symphony orchestra lies in the repertoire, said de Cou. “The symphonic repertoire has been set for the last 50 years, or more. Pull out a program from the 1950s and you’ll see a line-up that is close to what is played today. Ballet is always adding new. It has to stay new to survive.”

In the Director’s Choice program this month, the world premiere of Justin Peck’s “Debonair” used George Antheil’s “Serenade fro String Orchestra No. 1” written in 1948. Antheil's piece chosen creates a glamorous mood and introduces the PNB audience to a composer who as well-known today as he should be, said de Cou. “Antheil’s a fascinating character. He went to Paris and deliberately wrote concerts that would cause people to riot. Then he went to Hollywood and met Hedy Lamarr. They ended up developing a system to guide torpedoes during World War II. It has 88 inputs, like a run on a piano keyboard or piano roll, and still serves as a basis of Bluetooth and cell phone technology today.”

Besides always ready to learn a new work, the PNB Orchestra also knows how to change up their style to suit 19th century ballet music. “I love ‘Don Quixote’ (which returns to PNB in January). It’s a wonderful piece of music (by Minkus) often played badly in concerts. It was written in the 1840s and an orchestra has to use that style of the 1840s, like playing Mendelsohn. Very light and not heavy-handed. If you can play it really well, if you can play with that sensibility, the score can sound transcendent,” said de Cou.

Even the most familiar of all ballet music, Tchaikovsky’s renowned scores, has to be adjusted for the performance and even for an individual dancer to deliver the maximum effect to the audience. “There’s that wonderful oboe sequence in ‘Swan Lake.’ And the oboe player here would always ask “who’s dancing tonight?” during the performances. Our whole orchestra is very concentrated on supporting the dancers,” said de Cou. “Conducting for ballet is making a series of small adjustments throughout the performance If you drove your car down the road always clutching your wheel in exactly the same way, you’d crash. It’s the same with a performance. You have to adjust throughout the evening. I’m watching the stage and listening to the musicians.”

The orchestra also recorded Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” for a CD available for sale online and in the gift shop at McCaw Hall.. This recording faithfully follows the score as it is performed for the beloved Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak version makes its final outing Nov. 28 to Dec. 28.
“We’ve just recorded the Balanchine ‘Nutcracker’ which debuts at PNB in 2015,” said de Cou. “Nobody has ever recorded it as it is performed. Balanchine added a big chunk of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ score in the first act, and the order of pieces is changed in the second. So what you hear during a performance is not what you hear elsewhere.”

De Cou also emphasized that music at the ballet also can stir a whole different response than music in a concert hall. “[Stravinsky’s music for] ‘Agon’ is one of those pieces that works better as a ballet than a stand-alone piece of music,” said de Cou. “At the end of the pas de deux, the audience always claps or even cheers. They’ve just sat through an atonal, 12 tone, piece that’s austere. I’ve seen it played in symphonic concerts and it’s always a dud. But the ballet audience listens with their eyes as well as their ears. They can cheer because they’ve just experienced the same music in a very different way.”

As for why Seattle can sustain a ballet orchestra, a symphony, an opera company, and many experienced pit musicians playing in local theaters when larger cities can’t, de Cou has a simple explanation.

“It starts raining now and will continue raining until June. That weather plays to our advantage. People have to come indoors,” he said. With family from New Orleans and Hawaii, de Cou grew up in a slightly different climate but he’s happy to be here, conducting an ever-growing, exciting repertoire for the ballet. “And I’ve adjusted to Seattle. At my apartment building, I still use the barbecue year-round. I just take my extra big umbrella and my rain clothes. And I’ll have use of the building barbeque all to myself until summer.”