Q&A with Nigel Gaynor —
Music Director and Principal Conductor
Interview taken from the Midsummer Night's Dream Teacher's Resource Kit.
What are the key characteristics of music for ballet?
A vast variety of music genres and styles have been used for ballet. Music composed for narrative ballets usually consists of 1 – 4 minute sections, which each convey a particular mood or sequence of moods. These sections are designated specifically for pas de deux, solos or corps de ballet components. Often narrative ballet music assigns musical motifs (tunes/themes) for each of the main characters. In this way, music assists to portray characters’ identities and their intentions. Ideally, the music for each character should be in strong contrast from each other, to help convey the story in the most colourful and dramatic way possible.
In a ballet performance, does the orchestra conductor lead or follow the dancers?
It’s an inter-relationship that ebbs and flows depending on the circumstances, and what the intention is at a particular time. Generally, the Company Dancers will follow my lead so that they remain in time with each other and the music. However, I can alter the tempo, where possible, to assist the Principals and Soloists with the execution of their art. To be fully prepared, these elements are explored with dancers and artistic staff during the rehearsal period.
Describe the collaborative process when working with Liam Scarlett.
Liam and I first discussed his concept and vision for the production and how we would augment Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Opus 61 to produce a full-length ballet score. It became a process of creation and reflection. Part of the process meant I orchestrated Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words piano compositions as well as adding some transitions. Also, once Liam commenced choreographing, further music was inserted to complete the score.
Describe your process of orchestrating the piano pieces and composing the transitions.
To emulate Mendelssohn’s orchestral sound I used only orchestral instruments that he had previously used. When arranging or composing the transitions between two sections, I had to consider the key (signature) relationships, as well as the motif material of each character. Strong harmonic relationships make the score sound more unified, as does appropriate repetition of each character’s theme. When choosing which instrument/s carry the tune, you consider which tone or colour best suits the moment. A very general example would be to say that usually a flute has a ‘happier disposition’ than the clarinet, so for a section that should be brighter or more optimistic than the previous section, the flute is usually the best choice.
How has music been used in Liam Scarlett’s production to communicate meaning, intent and create imagery?
Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream score is widely considered to be the greatest fairy music written in the 19th century. Conveniently for us, much of Mendelssohn’s other orchestral music lends itself to portraying a fairy landscape, with delicate rapid string passages, shifting harmonies and restrained use of brass instruments.
For example, the Hebrides Overture is Oberon’s theme. This music was originally intended to portray the oceanic power and mystery of the Scottish West coastline. The piece starts softly in a minor key and builds and surges in much the same way as a rugged seascape does. This creates an eerie, threatening atmosphere, which is ideal for this character, who is the king of the fairies.
Puck is described by Shakespeare as being able to run around the girth of the globe in 40 minutes which is why he is superbly personified by the ‘quicksilver’ Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s String Octet. This rapid and intense music hurtles onwards, helping to create comic moments for a hasty Puck, who is very keen to serve his master, yet fails to fully consider the consequences of his actions!
How would you describe the rehearsal process with the orchestra?
Intense! I have just two rehearsals of 2.5 hours each with the orchestra before we rehearse with the dancers. You can’t always predict how this time is best spent, so it’s a fascinating and creative day in its own right. We then have two rehearsals with the dancers performing on the stage (a technical and a dress rehearsal) and by the end of these we have to be ready for Opening Night.
What is your favourite part of your role as Music Director and Principal Conductor for Queensland Ballet?
I love every aspect of the job – it is a very rewarding responsibility knowing you’re helping dancers to do their best and to collaborate on new productions where I arrange and orchestrate music. It is a privilege to work with the whole Queensland Ballet team.