The orchestra is an unsung hero of ballet performances. Generally anonymous unless something goes wrong, they make performances come alive. Listening to music for a ballet is an exhilarating experience that enhances the performance. Whenever I attend a ballet with recorded music, a big component of the performance is missing.
David LaMarche, along with Charles Barker and Ormsby Wilkins are conductors that make the music happen at ABT. I’ve seen David conduct many times for ABT and we should all enjoy our jobs as much as David. He is animated, whether focusing his attention on the musicians in the pit or concentrating on the dancers onstage. At the end of an act, he sometimes gives a playful over-exaggerated exclamation point on the final note to the orchestra. He laughs, shakes a few of the musicians’ hands as he makes his way out of the pit to his dressing room.
David started playing piano at age 10 in Westerly, Rhode Island. Continuing his music education, David earned a degree in music and piano at Boston University. After working in San Francisco, he moved to New York in 1983, working as a solo pianist until landing at Dance Theatre of Harlem as a pianist and Conductor until 1996. He then performed free-lance work with Gerald Arpino at the Joffrey Ballet in addition to cabaret jobs. In 1998, ABT hired David as a rehearsal pianist and soon after appointed him as a Conductor. In addition to his work at ABT, David’s guest conductor appearances are impressive, with a list including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, The Paul Taylor Dance Company, L’Opera di Roma, Het National Ballet, Les Grand Ballets Canadiens, Ballet British Columbia, and Ballet West. In addition to ABT, David is Music Director of the Jose Limon Company. As a writer, he is a regular contributor to New York Concert Review and Ballet News.
I interviewed David on the challenges of conducting for ballet.
Balletfocus: Conducting for a ballet looks like a difficult task, requiring multitasking skills as the conductor constantly shifts focus between the action onstage and musicians in the pit. I asked David what he typically focuses on during a performance. Also, whether the tempo changes from dancer to dancer during solos.
David: I usually focus on the orchestra, especially if certain passages need more attention. But I know when to divert my attention to the stage, for certain solos and cues. I think it’s better to lead than follow the dancers. Having said that, we do work out a lot of tempi previously in rehearsals, so I already know the shape of a solo before we get to the pit. Sometimes, I have to cue a dancer or a group of dancers to start a dance.
For big ballerina roles, and leading dancer roles, or any solo, for that matter, the interpretation can change wildly from person to person. The overall pacing of a solo can be different, but also an individual step can be taken at various speeds, depending on the dancer. Some women have very fast fouetté turns; some men have huge elevation in their jumps – this will make a difference in the tempo. So yes, I do adjust for those things.
Balletfocus: What music do you find most challenging to conduct and why?
David: Some of the Stravinsky scores are challenging rhythmically and even in the Tchaikovsky ballets, there are sections that are difficult as far as ensemble. And then there are ballets with rather simple music that are challenging because they are so detailed in their phrasing in order to synchronize with the dancer: Giselle, La Bayadère, for example.
Balletfocus: You are trained as a pianist. Do you learn a musical score on the piano first before conducting?
David: I usually study scores away from the piano, and only use the piano for difficult passages that are hard for me to conceptualize. Sometimes I still play (piano) for rehearsals at ABT during the busiest periods.
Balletfocus: What are your most memorable performances?
David: There are performances in which the dancers are on fire – like last season’s (2015 Met Season) Swan Lake with Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes. And then there are performances, equally as memorable to me, but perhaps not to the audience, in which the orchestra plays exceptionally well as in some Romeo and Juliets last season. They feel wonderful at the time – but then it’s on to the next one!
Balletfocus: Do you have any dance training?
David: I took ballet lessons in college, but never studied dance seriously.
Balletfocus: Dancers have fairly common backgrounds: start dance at an early age, attend a performing arts school such as School of American Ballet (School for NYCB) or Ellison Ballet, then acceptance into a studio company or main company as an Apprentice or Corps member. David explains the musical backgrounds of the musicians in the orchestra. One difference between dancers and musicians is college attendance. Ballet dancers at major companies very rarely attend college before acceptance into a ballet company while most musicians have a degree. The difference is probably the short-term nature of a dance career relative to a musician.
David: ABT orchestra musicians are all highly trained professionals, many of whom are in demand in the metropolitan area, and many of them play in other ensembles, such as Orpheus, St. Luke’s Orchestra, Mostly Mozart Festival.
I would say that most of the musicians have degrees from a conservatory or college music department. But many don’t have advanced degrees because they start working while they are young – the best teacher is experience!
Balletfocus: Getting into the ABT orchestra is a very competitive process. David explains the auditioning process.
David: When a position becomes vacant in the ABT orchestra, we usually have an audition. We post a notice in the union newspaper, whittle down the list of applicants, and then schedule a blind audition (behind a curtain), which will consist of several rounds of playing. All the conductors and a committee from the orchestra are involved in the decision making process.
Balletfocus: What do you do during intermissions? Do you talk to the dancers/musicians about the music/tempo?
David: In intermissions I relax in my dressing room with a cool drink. Sometimes I’ll give a note to a musician. Then at five minutes before curtain, I go up onstage in case any dancers have any last-minute requests.
Balletfocus: When ABT performs on tours, David conducts local-area musicians. It must be a great challenge with new musicians that he hasn’t worked with before. David explains the process of working with another orchestra in other cities.
David: For our tours, we contact the presenter way in advance, and we find a music contractor to hire the musicians. Sometimes it’s a group of freelancers, sometimes it’s a house orchestra like the Kennedy Center Orchestra. I mail the music six weeks in advance of he first rehearsal, and I set up a schedule with the orchestra. It’s usually two rehearsals with the orchestra alone, one with dancers and orchestra, then the shows. Fortunately, most freelance orchestras in big urban areas are familiar with the ballet repertoire from having played for touring ensembles over the years.
Balletfocus: What is your favorite classical music? Non-classical music?
David: I love so many different kinds of music, it’s hard to name a favorite. The composers that I hold in the highest esteem are Bach and Stravinsky. But there are many others that I love – Schumann, Debussy, Britten. Perhaps it’s more by the composition than by the composer. For non-classical music, I love the old theater composers like Berlin, Kern, Porter. Some jazz artists, some folk singers. Sadly, I’m not too contemporary in my popular music tastes!