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Don’t forget the music (Tchaikovsky didn’t)

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jul 17, 2014 12:06 PM

Ruslan Skvorstsov and Maria Alexandrova of the Bolshoi Ballet; Source: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Europe 

This month, the Bolshoi is a guest of the Lincoln Center Festival. When I say “the Bolshoi,” I mean the opera and ballet companies, complete with orchestra and chorus. Last night, the appropriate forces performed Swan Lake at the Koch Theater.

Of course, New Yorkers get Swan Lake a lot, courtesy of the American Ballet Theatre. And those Swan Lakes are mainly very good. It’s sometimes easy to overlook your home company, and thrill to the foreign visitor. This applies to other spheres as well.

Think of a university—where an assistant professor may have little chance of promotion, because he’s just “good ol’ Tom.” He may be very attractive to another campus, however. And think of the girl next door, lissome—who may be overlooked in favor of the temptress from an exotic locale.

A Swan Lake from the Bolshoi ought to be good, yes? This is the storied Moscow company, performing the core of the core repertory—by Tchaikovsky, the core ballet composer, and a Russian, of course. Much of art can be an expectations game.

I touched on this subject in my “Salzburg Chronicle” last October. I said that a Verdi Requiem, conducted by Muti, with a top orchestra, a top chorus, and top soloists, ought to be good. And this performance was in the Verdi bicentennial year, to boot. The audience was primed for a great, or even historic, experience. Did they get one? No, they got a flop. But I could understand if they weren’t quite willing to accept this.

In my chronicle, I wrote,


Bear with me a second: In the next few days, I came upon a display of gingerbread men at an open-air market. Austria is known for its gingerbread. The cookies looked fantastic. I picked the best-looking one and bit into it. It was stale. No good. But, for a split second, I could see how I might will it good. It was supposed to be good. The expectations game is very important, too important, in music and other spheres of life.

Well, I will not keep you in suspense: Last night’s Swan Lake from the Bolshoi was, in fact, very good.

Ballet is primarily a dance experience, not a musical experience. But I should leave the dancing in more expert hands and comment on the music—which is not unimportant, after all. It is very important.

The quality of the orchestra makes a big difference in a ballet, I think. Would you rather have good dancers and a poor orchestra than poor dancers and a good orchestra? I’m sure. But some nights, I'm not so sure. Bad playing can easily mar a night of ballet.

Here in New York, our ballet orchestras are often snickered at. This snickering is not entirely fair: The orchestras can do themselves proud (and the conductor is a factor). But on many a night, the snickerers have a point.

The Bolshoi Orchestra is what you might call a real orchestra—not a ballet orchestra, but an orchestra orchestra. Last night, they were conducted by Pavel Sorokin, who was accomplished. And the first thing you noticed about the orchestra, or I noticed, was that they were loud. Confident, unafraid, present. The ballet orchestras I’m familiar with tend to be reticent, muted. They accompany rather than play.

Swan Lake is one of the great Romantic scores, and it is not mere accompaniment. An orchestra should feast on it, along with the dancers. There are many excellent solo opportunities in the orchestra, especially for woodwinds (which is typical of Tchaikovsky). A Swan Lake needs a good Odette/Odile, but what about the oboist?

The Bolshoi Orchestra was not immaculate, far from it. Many entrances were poor—beyond poor, wretched. As the dancers are expected to be precise and unified, so should the players. There was some unfortunate splatting in the brass. Etc.

Some of the graceful, flitting, pliant sections should have been more graceful, flitting, and pliant. There was a bias toward the blunt. The Pas de quatre—those four cygnets—was a little heavy. By the way, do you know Earl Wild’s piano transcription of this piece? It is one of his best—to hear him play it, go here.

Continuing with last night: Grand, noble sections could have been grander and nobler. These sections tended to be too fast, unsavored. But I remind myself: A ballet conductor does not necessarily have a free hand. There are balletic restrictions. On a concert podium, the conductor (if he can) rules.

The orchestra was never better than in the “foreign dances”: the Hungarian dance, the Spanish dance, and so on. These were really distinctive—set apart from the score at large. And there was genuine menace in the black swan’s music.

From first act to last, this Swan Lake had its underlying musicality and vitality. The orchestra surely has an effect on the dancers, for good or ill. Music, dancing, scenario, choreography—they blend into one experience.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the better Swan Lake gets—the more brilliant Tchaikovsky gets. Age cannot wither this work, not custom stale her. Did you notice, above, that I called Swan Lake “one of the great Romantic scores”? That was a stupid hedge. A weaselly qualification. Swan Lake is one of the great scores, period.

Two years ago, I wrote a little piece called “Up with Tutus: Ballet music—one man’s evolution.” It concluded,


Some ballet music, I still contend, is beyond hope. During its recent season here, the American Ballet Theatre put on Le Corsaire, whose score is cobbled together from five composers . . . Act I is like a parody of ballet music, invented by ballet-haters. But Swan Lake? Honestly, I could see and hear it once a week. Probably twice.

Well, how about The Nutcracker, that silly seasonal standard? Let me quote another piece—about Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian composer:


Once, he was asked what he was prepared to listen to, right that second. He replied that he was always prepared to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker—“because each and every section of the score is a masterpiece.” That is a very rare declaration for a modern composer to make. Even those who believe it—who know it’s true—would shrink from saying it.

As long as I am quoting, I’m going to quote Thomas P. Griesa—not an arts-world figure but a judge. A federal judge here in New York, and a longtime friend of The New Criterion. For many years, he has been going to the opera and the ballet. His wife, Chris, is an ex-ballerina (though still graceful). I have heard him say, “A mediocre night at the opera is better than a mediocre night at the ballet. But a great night at the ballet—that beats everything.”

In my view, we had such a night last night.

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