Monday, April 11, 2011: Repetition of Precision

National Theatre Orchestra conductor David Švec explains ballet's critical need for precision

With the premiere of Cinderella just days away, the National Theatre orchestra accompanying the dainty fairy and dashing prince is going into high gear. The orchestra’s conductor, David Švec, rushes to meet Opus Osm after his daily rehearsal, with heavy music scores in his hands. Little orange post-it notes stick out of the books, indicating a few places that still need to be polished before the curtain goes up.

Mr Švec pauses long enough to tell us what it’s like to conduct an orchestra when — instead of facing an empty stage — he faces dozens of dancers counting on him to provide the precision of music for their perfect twirls, leaps, spins, and prances.

David Švec is primarily an opera conductor. Just last December he presented Donizetti’s comic opera The Elixir of Love to the National Theatre audience. Although he has done several ballets, such as the Othello based on the music of Leoš Janáček, he says he is still new to the dance genre.

The difference between opera and ballet is clear to every school child. But what is it like to conduct ballet versus opera? “In opera the conductor works closely with singers,” Mr Švec explains enthusiastically. “He influences them from the very beginning, discussing the libretto and phrasing. On the other hand the detail in a ballet is very much already set.”

Conducting an opera singer, you can 'feel the breath,' he explains

He suggests that there is a symbiosis between the conductor and opera singers that is not so immediate with ballet dancers: “You can ‘feel the breath’ of opera singers and can gauge that they need more time to get to the place they need to be. It would be good for me to learn how well a ballet dancer is doing by the way he lifts his legs,” he laughs.

Opera also allows conductors more creativity, he finds. In ballet, the choreography clearly dictates the way the music is performed. “I can’t just say I feel that right here the music should be faster, because the ballet is planned and choreographed in a certain way,” he says, “We would destroy all their work if we did that.”

That’s especially the case in this Cinderella version by Jean Christophe Maillot of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. The National Theatre orchestra must work even harder, to re-create the original score by Prokofiev recorded in Monte Carlo. “The music accompaniment must adhere to the original. The tempos are very fast and lively, which makes it difficult for the musicians, because we have to be really precise.”

He enjoys the Monte Carlo choreography because it’s tailored exactly to fit the music: “It isn’t so technical, and the choreography contains a lot of emotions and wit.”

Difficulties for an orchestra accompanying a ballet can also arise from the practice routine dancers use these days. The trend is for dancers to practice first to recorded music. ”And of course when it comes down to practicing with the live ensemble there can be problems. They‘re used to a certain tempo or tone from the one recording they know and whatever we do differently can cause them problems.”

A dancer's every move relies on precision of the music

The preparation of a ballet performance usually requires fewer rehearsals than an opera, on the orchestra’s side. Actually, because of time constraints and the staging of Wagner’s Parsifal, the orchestra first met only in the middle of March to master their performance to perfection for the premiere.

But despite the time pressure and fast tempos there are no petty wars between the musicians and dancers. The cooperation between the assistant choreographer Giovanna Lorenzoni and the conductor has been smooth. “It’s a dialogue,” Mr Švec remarks.

The conductor expresses a lot of respect and admiration for dancers. “You know, we have just finished rehearsing today and the dancers are back there in the studio perfecting their moves. You have to respect the ballet, you have to bow to all the hard work.”

His only wish, at the end of our conversation, is that he and his orchestra will provide the perfect accompaniment for this week’s premiere. oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

About David Švec
* Studied piano and conducting at the Conservatory in České Budějovice; continued his studies at Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts (JAMU) in Brno
* Received his first post as a conductor at the Janáček Opera House, working on both operas and ballets
* Since 2005 he has been working at the National Theatre.
In addition, Mr Švec conducts the Prague Chamber Philharmonic, performs as a pianist, and is currently working on a crossover project between jazz and classical music with Iva Bittová and the Zlín Philharmonic.

Photo Credits: David Švec, Miroslav Setnička; Zuzana Šimáková as Cinderella, Hana Smejkalová

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