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This is day 15 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

151206.jpgOne of the jobs I’ve hated most as a company pianist is having to be the errand boy for the ballet staff during stage calls with orchestra. You’re asked (no, told) to sit in the front row of the stalls behind the conductor, and wait for one of the ballet staff to shout down to you “Can you tell him it’s too fast?” or ‘”Tell him we want to go back to where Jane comes on”. Now, you’re not supposed to talk to bus drivers while they’re driving, so how do you think conductors (excuse the confusion of terms) feel about having some lowly pianist tapping them on the shoulder while they’re commanding an entire orchestra, telling them they’re doing it wrong?

One such awful occasion was a rehearsal of David Lichine’s Graduation Ball in the early 90s at the Festival Hall, with Graham Bond conducting. It was already a tense rehearsal due to some key dancers being off. At one point, the person brought in to set the ballet told the Benesh notator to tell me to tell the conductor that he should keep the tempo steady.

I passed the message on, and ducked as Graham exploded in his northern vernacular, loud enough to reach the ballet staff without the aid of a microphone “Well he can…[unrepeatable] – it’s a bleeding Viennese waltz for Christ’s sake”! Claudia von Canon has explained this in more temperate terms in an article called Zwirnknaulerl: A note on the performance of Johann Strauss et al, where she argues that you have to understand the tempo rubato of Viennese spoken dialect in order to perform Strauss waltzes with the subtle inflections that they need.

The idea of performing a Strauss ballet without any of the characteristic pulling about of tempo and idiomatic rhythmic inflections is, of course, absurd, and Graham wasn’t having any of it. I’m glad he stood his ground, because it was through his conducting of this score that I grew to love the waltz which accompanies the ‘Pigtail’ girl. The bit that I love is all the things that aren’t in the score at all – the oh-so-subtle hesitations, the gathering enthusiasm and then the graceful, smiling cadence before setting off again. Even more importantly, I learned from this experience that if you want musical quality, you have to just get on with it, and kick and swear in the process if necessary, because there are enough people around who’ll stamp it out if you let them.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist