“Look at the music in this program: Arvo Part, Ligeti, Mendelssohn, and Richard Rodgers’ Carousel. Put these composers together on a symphony program and it would be a hard sell, but you can do this at the ballet,” said conductor Emil de Cou.
De Cou recently assumed the fulltime position of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Music Director and Principal Conductor. Although no stranger to the symphony concerts, as a conductor at Wolf Trap, Carnegie Hall, Boston Pops, and others, he’s delighted to be back in the orchestra pit of a ballet company.
“And PNB is such a happy company. You can see it when you come to work, people are happy to be here. Peter [Boal, PNB’s artistic director] sets that tone,” said de Cou, who previously worked at the American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, as well as serving as a guest conductor for numerous dance companies.
While most of his work in recent years has been in concert settings, he’s happy to return to dance as the resident conductor of a company with its own highly talented orchestra.
“A symphony can be a very abstract art form,” said de Cou, “and, also, set in a specific way.”
A symphony performance, he went on to explain, carries certain expectations and tradition – the musical score dictates that, if nothing else – and that’s one of the reasons guest conductors can fly into a city and rehearse only a few times before they appear on stage.
But conducting a ballet score takes more time and preparation. “You’re accompanying the dancers, and every performance is extremely personal. A dancer’s instrument is his body and that’s going to be slightly different for each one,” he said.
Which means, for de Cou, he wants to know who is going to be on stage before he heads into the pit.
The constant change of pace dictated by the wide range of music in PNB’s current program also presents happy challenges for the man leading the music. In All Wheeldon, all the dances were choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, but the mood of each dance is highly distinct.
First there’s Carousel, using one of Rodgers’ most romantic and lush scores. The lighthearted romp called Variations Serieuses sets the backstage shenigans of a ballet company to lilting selections of Mendelssohn, adapted by Mack Shlefer, and a not-so-simple pas de deux features the sparse but romantic music of Arvo Part. “That’s such a special piece,” said de Cou. “And, while people may not know Ligeti (whose work is featured in Polyphony) as well as the others, you can hear some of his music in the movie 2001.”
Besides his interests in ballet and music, de Cou is an avowed movie fan. He conducted the first live accompaniment the movie of Wizard of Oz at Wolf Trap and later did a similar presentation of Casablanca.
He’s also a bit of a technology buff, with concerts of video game music, collaborations with NASA, and even setting up a Twitter feed during a symphony.
While these nontraditional performances are reflective of his wide-ranging interests, he engineered these events to draw the next generation into symphony halls.
“One of my heroes is Leopold Stokowski,” he said. Stokowski built a populist career in the 20th century as a conductor in America, appearing in a Deanna Durbin movie and conducting Disney’s Fantasia. While many criticized Stowoski for not being a “serious” conductor, de Cou pointed out that his work helped introduce many young fans to classical music. “More people heard Fantasia than ever went to a symphony when it came out.”
So, as de Cou contemplates new ways to entice people into listening to a symphony or a ballet, he asks himself: “What would Stokowski do?”
And the kid who wanted to be an astronaut loves PNB’s home at the Seattle Center.
“I commute to work on the Monorail, how cool is that?” he asked with a grin.
All Wheeldon continues at McCaw Hall tomorrow (Sept. 29) through Sunday. For more information, check www.pnb.org.