Chatting Paris & conducting for ballet with Gary Sheldon of the Miami City Ballet

Arts / Article

By Miami City Ballet Gary Sheldon, principal conductor for Miami City Ballet, will begin his second season with the Company in October. He came to Florida from San Francisco where he conducted for the San Francisco Ballet in numerous performances from 2004-2009. This summer, Maestro Sheldon traveled with MCB to Paris for the troupe’s Parisian debut. MCB spoke with Sheldon about playing for a ballet and conducting in Paris…

Q: In Paris, you conducted the Promethean Orchestra, a training orchestra similar to the New World Symphony here in Miami.  You’ve previously mentioned that you would have to instruct them on the subtleties of playing for the ballet versus solely playing a concert.  How did you go about doing this?  How did they adjust? A: It was a joy working with the Prometheus Orchestra for our Paris performances.  Interestingly, for nearly all the young professionals in this ensemble, this was the first time performing for ballet; therefore, I found it necessary in rehearsals to point out some of the differences in playing for ballet vs. orchestra-only concerts.  For example, I would often rehearse the same passage in a different tempo, forcing the musicians to watch the conductor more closely than they were used to.  They never knew quite what to expect.  The point not being that tempos constantly change for the stage; choreographers and dancers in fact prefer consistency.  But whereas musicians in an orchestra-only concert are accustomed to focusing more on listening, in the pit, one must look as much as listen.  The conductor takes many cues from the stage and sometimes gives cues to the dancers.  The musicians must watch carefully to be ready for anything – whether a cue to start a movement or end a variation, a gesture to keep the tempo moving or perhaps hold it back, or an unexpected breath between phrases that wasn’t rehearsed, but made sense in performance.

Q: In ballet, dancers are often trained with slightly different technical or stylistic influences depending on the area of the world they are trained in.  While the steps are the same, the execution may vary.  Do you find this to be true with musicians as well? A: When it comes to style and stylistic traditions, the dance world comes by it more readily than the music world.  Whether the difference between a Balanchine movement and a Tharp movement, or a Spanish step vs. a Russian step, or a jazz move and a classical movement, dancers must approach every work from the outset with an understanding of appropriate style.  Musicians on the other hand, tend to focus on their individual parts and section (strings, winds, percussion) parts first before addressing style.   It’s very much the conductor’s role to see that the music is rendered in the appropriate style. Oddly enough, even for the Prometheus Orchestra, an ensemble of mostly French musicians, I found that I had to describe and rehearse stylistic elements of the French music we performed.  The great French conductor Charles Munch once said that rendering French music is more a matter of “taste” than “technique”.  I tried to illuminate this concept in rehearsal with comments such as to the strings, to play with a lighter bow, and to the winds, a gentler, less defined attack and release of notes.

Q: What was the highlight of conducting in Paris? A: There were so many memorable performances in Paris.  Rather than picking a single one as a highlight, for me the most striking memory I took home was the feeling of an ever deepening relationship with the entire company throughout the run.  It seemed like a ‘coming of age’ for all of us, in the best, collective sense.