Friday 21 October 2011

Last night we went to hear Kaija Saariaho's cello concerto, Notes on Light, Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor and Faure's Requiem. A slightly strange mixture for a concert, you might think, except that this wasn't a concert, it was an evening at the Royal Ballet. We tend not to think of the ballet from a musical point of view, but contemporary choreographers' choice of music can be quite interesting and challenging. I can remember when Glen Tetley's ballet Shadowplay was in the Royal Ballet repertoire which meant that Floral Street was probably the only place in London where you could hear Charles Koechlin's music live.

Last night, though, we were at the Royal Ballet principally for the dance and the choreographers. It was my first exposure to Wayne McGregor's fascinating Limen. Most of McGregor's previous work had been with dancers trained in modern dance, rather than with a classical vocabulary so that Limen is a work which seemed to stretch both choreographer and dancers as each accommodate the other. And it was also the first time that I had heard Saariaho's fascinating and, at times, luminous score, with the solo cello part played by Anssi Karttunen. The only drawback was that, from our seats, we could not see the cellist which was a shame.

The middle ballet was Marguerite and Armand, Frederick Ashton's celebration of the relationship between Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. I saw the ballet when it was revived for Sylvie Guillem and then I found it rather forgettable, 'is that all there is...'. Perhaps it was one of those roles where we saw too much of Guillem's own personality rather than the characters. But for this revival we had Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin and they certainly made the stage sizzle in just the right way, this revival was pitch perfect. My only niggle was Dudley Simpson's orchestration of the Liszt piano sonata, neatly done though it was; I kept wondering what the ballet would have been like if pianist Robert Clark had been allowed to play the whole sonata in its original, unorchestrated, form.

One issue with listening to ballets is that, of course, the speeds are not necessarily what one wants, the conductor has to be generally sympathetic to choreographic and dancers requirements. I can remember a BBC TV programme about Les Noces in which the Royal Ballet danced Nijinska's choreography in a TV studio version of the ballet in their repertoire. Except that the conductor was Leonard Bernstein and some of the dancers said afterwards how taxing it had been because Bernstein's speeds, generally brisk, took little or no account of the needs of dancers feet!

This applied very much to the final work in the evening, Faure's Requiem. Barry Wordsworth paced this quite steadily and encouraged a massive, rather old fashioned performance from the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra. I have heard the piece done at the opera house with a bought in chamber choir, but here we had the full, vibrato-laden operatic chorus approach which seemed to fit with the stately grandeur of the musical performance. Not that MacMillan's ballet is all stately grandeur, but it relies on the music's massive power and I do wonder what the dance would be like if accompanied by a chamber version of the music.

MacMillan's choreography is something that has accompanied the whole of my theatre going life. My first ballet was MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet which we saw when I was in my teens. After that I managed to see a remarkable number of his ballets as they were produced, though of course I did not see Requiem until it was finally done at Covent Garden. It never fails to amaze me how he manages to create so many places where music and movement combine in a heart-stopping moment. Last night was finely danced by Lauren Cuthertson, Nehemiah Kish and Federico Bonelli.

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