Saturday, 29 December 2018

A concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet

Gavin Sutherland rehearses “Song of the Earth” with English National Ballet and the ENB Philharmonic, Manchester, October 2017
Gavin Sutherland rehearses Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth with English National Ballet
and the ENB Philharmonic, Manchester, October 2017
The conductor Gavin Sutherland is a busy man at the moment, the music director of English National Ballet (ENB), he is in the middle of the company's Christmas season, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Manon at the London Coliseum from 13 December 2018 to 20 January 2019. When we meet up, he is engagingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about ENB, ballet and more despite having had the opening of The Nutcracker the night before.

When I ask him how things are going, he tells me that much of the season is a sell-out and only Kenneth MacMillan's Manon remains a harder sell. Manon is dear to Gavin's heart because it was his first new production as music director in 2008, and is part of artistic director Tamara Rojo's desire to keep challenging audiences, rather than presenting them with wall-to-wall Nutcrackers at Christmas, as well as aiming to expand ENB audiences. (Manon is not the only MacMillan ballet in ENB's repertoire, the company also dances Song of the Earth).

The production famously challenges the Royal Ballet on its home territory, and the production of Manon (a work created for the Royal Ballet by Kenneth MacMillan) was taken into ENB's repertoire when Wayne Eagling was ENB's artistic director, and Eagling had danced in the early performances of Manon at Covent Garden (according to the Royal Opera House performance database Eagling danced a small role in the premiere of Manon on 7 March 1974, and with Jennifer Penny led the second cast later the same month).

In fact, ENB are using a production of Manon taken from Royal Danish Ballet which Gavin describes as very spartan, and he feels that it achieves the right balance with a minimum of suggestion which heightens the audience's delight in the work.

That ENB is mounting such a different production at the London Coliseum, a short walk from Covent Garden, only heightens the element of competition, something that Gavin loves. He feels that ENB is in strong form at the moment, with a large company, impressive principals and tight ensemble.

Gavin Sutherland and the ENB Philharmonic in rehearsal, The Warehouse, London, June 2017.
Gavin Sutherland and the ENB Philharmonic in rehearsal, The Warehouse, London, June 2017.
The orchestra is on good form too, and with so many performances to play over a six week period, the orchestra members have started taking sports science classes; this year was the first time that they were offered and 28 players have started doing them.

The company's season has a nice Christmas atmosphere, of a reserved kind feels Gavin, and this year there are just 23 performances of The Nutcracker alongside Swan Lake and Manon. When we meet, Gavin was just recovering from the previous night's opening of The Nutcracker, and the company has eight shows during the following week (Tuesday to Friday evenings with two on Saturday and two on Sunday). And whilst Gavin does not conduct every performance, it can still be tiring, as it can for all the players.

He feels that they rise to the occasion, particularly as they have an appreciative and enthusiastic audience, and are performing music by some of the great Romantic composers. And with The Nutcracker, Gavin comments on Tchaikovsky's cleverness at not putting into the suites the music from the two big pas de deux, so that you only get the real meat of the show during the full length ballet. And this remarkable music is accompanied by some challenging choreography (ENB's version of The Nutcracker is choreographed by Wayne Eagling), so there is no room for injury with the dancers.

Gavin will be conducting 10 performances of The Nutcracker (out of 23), seven of Swan Lake (out of 14) and five of Manon (out of eight). He has pulled back a little this year, and some years he has conducted 28 performances of The Nutcracker and by the time you reach performance number 26 the smile is getting a bit tight and Christmas is well past. In fact, he comments that it becomes all too easy to simply give the audience a show, to just click the baton but Gavin feels that it is important to bring much more to each performance. And in the process he manages to burn around 1750 calories per performance!

English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo.
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo.
Conducting ballet is a very particular art.
In the concert hall, the conductor has far more scope to interpret, whereas in ballet Gavin thinks of it as a concerto for silent soloists, and dancers have just as fluid a way of extending a choreographic phrase as do instrumental soloists. In opera, essentially the conductor is still in charge of the whole performance, but in ballet the balance is 50-50, and Gavin thinks that he has become more collaborative as he has got older.

Essentially, to get the mix right he has to dance (mentally) with the dancers, reading their bodies and feeling what they are doing, and what they might do. With a musical soloist, you can hear what they are doing and react, with a dancer you have to simply watch and understand. Gavin thinks that many emerging conductors do not always understand this about ballet. A conductor has to watch, to understand how the dancers are reacting, and whatever happens make the music feel as if it was meant to be.
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Gavin has a new associate conductor at ENB, Orlando Jopling, who has come from the opera and concert world and he is constantly challenging Gavin (in a good way), wanting to know why does it happen like that, why does it have to be that slow, why wait there? The orchestral players, too, need to understand the dancers that they are accompanying.

Inevitably there is only a limited amount of rehearsal time, so the ENB Philharmonic has to be ready for the first meeting of dancers and orchestra. The demands here are high, but the collaborative nature of the extremely loyal players ensures that, come opening night, the music is assured and confident in its accompaniment of the dancers. Plus there’s a particular character of a ballet orchestra’s sound - a keen dramatic sense, alongside the ability to change mood and emotion in a split-second. This, and the absolute reliance on the rostrum, is what makes this orchestra so special.And players really do feel what is going on stage, and understand enough to comment 'what the hell happened on stage tonight'

With younger conductors in the ballet, though, there is the ever present risk of them just conducting the orchestra, and not the dancers. But Gavin always tells his orchestral players to watch his body language, because Gavin's eyes will not be on the players but on the stage. 'My eyes are on the stage, my body language is yours'

But Gavin does not just conduct ballet. He has recently make his debut with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Christmas jazz and light music with Clare Teal.

Gavin with ENB Artistic Director Tamara Rojo CBE, choreographer Akram Khan and ENB staff on the Red Carpet of the 2017 Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, London
Gavin Sutherland with ENB Artistic Director Tamara Rojo CBE, choreographer Akram Khan and ENB staff on the Red Carpet of the 2017 Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, London
His entry into classical music as a child was via light music, he is a former chairman of the British Light Music Society and is currently doing a Ph.D. in British TV music, and he regrets that fewer orchestras are plaiying light music. And he is also a busy orchestrator, and was in fact heavily involved in ENB's new production of Giselle with choreography by Akram Khan, a production which has been a knock-out success (the production won an Olivier Award in 2017). The idea behind it was to re-imagine the ballet using contemporary dance, but with all the traditional emotion in a new environment. And the score had some nods in the direction of the original by Adolphe Adam. Composer Vincenzo Lamagna came in relatively late into the project, and it was Gavin's job to orchestra Vincenzo Lamagna's ideas.

The moment when dancers and orchestra meet for the first time in a new ballet is always an occasion for twitchy looks and the feeling that it didn't sound like this in the studio. Giselle was no different, but Gavin feels that the presence of the orchestra brought the piece to life.

This is one of Gavin's complaints about contemporary ballet and dance, the number of performances done to pre-recorded music where the result sounds too like automata. And Gavin feels that too many young choreographers think that the only way to gain an audience's attention is to deafen it. He jokes about the many ways choreographers describe loud (adding that dancers have 60 words for slow!).

ENB is going to be taking its production of Akram Khan's Giselle to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 2019, which is very exciting indeed. Whilst Gavin and Tamara Rojo were in Moscow planning the visit they saw the new dance theatre piece Nureyev at the Bolshoi (with choreography by Yuri Possokhov) which was an amazing evening of entertainment where the lead dancer playing Rudolf Nureyev had to dance, sing and conduct, and the piece used a full corps de ballet, soloists, corps de ballet of transvestites, a jazz trio and opera chorus. The score for the piece by Ilya Demutsky (who is only in his 20s) knocked Gavin out, and he felt that there really is hope for contemporary ballet scores. Demutsky's score ran the full gamut of emotions, yet was never too loud, and he had only written one full-length ballet piece before.

Gavin started playing the piano when he was three, he did not come from a musical family but his parents certainly appreciated music, and they had a piano. Gavin comes from County Durham, and the education system at the time did not allow for the teaching of piano, so there were few piano teachers and instead Gavin had a trombone. So he very much learned music by playing in the orchestra.

Music was, for him, an escape and he wanted to connect, to be around great musicians making music. At the age of 12 he was asked to play piano for a ballet school and continued there until he was 18. At University, after his first year at Huddersfield his conducting teacher retired and was replaced by John Longstaff, who had just got a job with Northern Ballet Theatre. Gavin's ballet school experience came in handy, and Longstaff suggested Gavin as a rehearsal pianist with Northern Ballet Theatre, Gavin graduated from being a rehearsal pianist to playing the piano in the orchestra and then to conducting the orchestra, making his conducting debut in 1992 at a Thursday matinee in Nottingham. He realised that this was what he wanted to do, what he was most passionate about.

He left Northern Ballet Theatre in the late 1990s and started working with Birmingham Royal Ballet. He feels that a series of happy accidents help build a large career profile and when ENB's music director was leaving 10 years ago, Gavin was asked to take over the role and is still there. He still has the thrill, even when it is tough, that he experienced as that 19-year-old at the matinee in Nottingham.

Now, people contact him about conducting ballet, and he usually invites them to a rehearsal where they find that the dancers can spend 90 minutes rehearsing one dance, and spend six weeks at rehearsal with just a piano before they join the orchestra. During this time, it is the conductors role to learn the score, and to learn the dance and the dancers. A comment Gavin often gets is 'how difficult can it be', in fact it is very difficult to do properly.

Next year is an important year for ENB because the company's new building in Canning Town is opening. This will be a purpose built, 'state of the art' building which will house the company and its school under one roof for the first time. And there will be a production space with a fly tower where they can tech and prepare pieces so that there will be no need for technical rehearsals in rented theatres, and it is axiomatic about that there is never enough theatre time so this new space should help that.

English National Ballet in Pina Bauch's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Pina Bauch's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) © Laurent Liotardo
There are also some great programmes coming up. A few years ago the company did a triple of ballets by female choreographers, She Said, the first time a UK company had done such a thing. They are returning to this with a triple bill called She Persisted, which will include Pina Bausch's version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This is a work that Gavin has conducted over 50 times, and the orchestra has it in its blood so that they can do it on just three hours rehearsal.

One of the ENB's signature works as been doing Swan Lake in the round at the Royal Albert Hall (with the orchestra perched up by the organ and with 60 swans taking over the arena), and now Christopher Wheeldon will be re-working his production of Cinderella, which was done at Dutch National Ballet, for in-the-round performances at the Royal Albert Hall.

The ballet-music nerd in Gavin enjoys working on such projects as producing the music for a production of  La Bayadere in Munich, where they wanted the music to be based on Petipa's original 1900 production of the ballet (most productions are based on the production from the 1920s which significantly re-structured the ballet and the music). Unable to get the music from the Bolshoi archives, Gavin and Lars Payne (one of the greatest authorities on ballet music in the world)) searched other archives for scores, and re-constituted the score from piano reductions and rehearsal scores. And Gavin did something similar for Petipa's La Corsaire which ENB took into its repertoire in 2013 [see Hilary's review].

Artists impression of English National Ballet's new home in Canning Town, London City Island
Artists impression of English National Ballet's new home in Canning Town, London City Island
English National Ballet at the London Coliseum
ENB on tour:

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