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Eugene Ballet & Orchestra NEXT To Perform Swan Lake

Ari Denison

On November 9th and 10th, Eugene Ballet will present Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, with a live score played by Orchestra NEXT. KLCC's Lauren Purcell-Joiner sat down with conductor Brian McWhorter to talk about Orchestra NEXT, the upcoming performance, and the collaboration between the two performance groups.

Lauren Purcell-Joiner: You were there at the very beginning of Orchestra NEXT, is that correct?

Brian McWhorter: Yeah. Sarah Viens and I cofounded Orchestra NEXT in 2012.

LP: What made that project come together.

BM: I asked Riley Grannan, the executive director of the ballet at the time, which orchestra he was having play live for them for the Nutcracker. He responded that since the crash of 2008 they were unable to have live music. And I just said something kind of stupid, I said, "Well, how about I start and orchestra for you." And he said ok. And so we started this band. The band has two primary goals. First, of course, is bring live music to as many shows at the ballet and other productions that we can. We work with the UO theatre, we're even doing an opera at UO this year, and we sometimes even work, as crazy as it sounds, with track and field events. Our second goal, is as important. And that's to provide musical mentorship to aspiring professional musicians. So it's a training orchestra. And there's nothing like it around. We're very proud of the model and our students. We've sort of--We're 300 students so far. The students seem to have a great time and I know that our professionals, who are doing the mentoring, they feel pushed and they feel inspired. I've said this many times, but I really do think that Orchestra NEXT is the single most important project in my career.

LP: Orchestra NEXT and the Eugene Ballet are going to perform Swan Lake with live music for the first time in the Eugene Ballet's history. Can you talk a little bit about what it's been like to put those two ensembles together, both the ballet and the orchestra?

BM: For the first time in the ballet's history, we're performing live music to Swan Lake. This is a piece that Toni Pimble choreographed a long time ago. But they've always had to do it with recorded music. To a lot of people, I think, you say you're playing Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, that basically means there's a score, there's all these parts, and it just kind of comes in this neat little box and you just kind of perform it. Not so in ballet, if we were doing a symphony, no question, that's likely what would happen. Ballet is really much more of a fluid dynamic. What we are accustomed to with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, it's not exactly what Tchaikovsky wrote. It went through massive changes after he died with the conductor that was at the imperial ballet in Russia, that changed how all of these things kind of fit together. Fast forward 100 years, to one of Toni Pimble's teachers who used a version of it. And even Toni has done some changes. So actually there are 80 changes from the original score to what we do now. And that took all summer for Sarah Viens and myself to kind of put together a score and all the parts.

LP: There's something really transformative about playing specifically for dancers. What has that process been like for you?

BM: I mean it kind of contextualizes music in some way, right? For me, as a clasically trained musician, dance was never really something we would think about. It's funny that this was Tchaikovsky's first ballet. He was widely criticized for his original version as not really particularly danceable. It was, I think the comment was that it was foreboding and a little heavy. It's so interesting how for me as a conductor in the ballet, I get to kind of work with the musicians who are in the pit--they can't see the dance. There's no interface there. Dancers can hear the music of course, but the musicians can't see anything that's going on. But I am that conduit that tries to make physical sense of the music in a way. I love music as a functional part of dance. The dancers on stage feel it. When we're really swinging with them, they feel it, and they dance better. There's something really important to me, of course, about that live component. It would be quite a different dance, if there was not live music, if there was recorded music. There's something missing. Now if you get a band in there, something is there and vital and vibrant and human.

LP: If you think about when you play with a metronome versus when you play with other people, there's this push and pull that really creates a dialogue in the music.

BM: In our field, in the classical arts, we often assume that the audience wants to come and they're wanting to see perfection. I think that's wrong. I think, myself too, when I go to a show, I want to see, I want to hear, I want to feel an interaction. I'm less interested in perfection; if I wanted perfection, there's plenty of places I can go. But the reason we go to performing arts, I think, is to see humanness unfold.

Eugene Ballet and Orchestra NEXT will be performing Swan Lake November 9th and 10th at the Hult Center.

Lauren began hosting Straight Street in May 2017.
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