In 2011, Alexis Lanz was appointed principal clarinetist of the Boston Ballet Orchestra , making him, at 24 years old, the youngest principal in the ensemble. When not playing with the BBO, he appears regularly with Symphony New Hampshire, the Boston Chamber Orchestra, the Callithumpian Consort, and Sound Icon. CriticalDance’s Carla DeFord met him recently at Boston Ballet’s studios to chat about dance and music from the musician’s point of view.
CD: What’s the difference between playing in a ballet orchestra and a symphony orchestra?
AL: One of the virtues of having a live orchestra playing for the ballet, as opposed to using a recorded track, is the ability of the orchestra to respond and adjust to the phrasing and timing of the dancers. This means that a ballet orchestra has to be extremely flexible with tempo and rubato in a way that you don’t typically find in a symphony orchestra.
Often the timing of certain passages will vary from performance to performance, and you can’t anticipate that solely from musical cues, so it becomes necessary to be more attentive to and reliant on the conductor. At our rehearsals, Jonathan [McPhee, BBO music director] will highlight specific passages that have a wider range of tempi. This helps prepare the orchestra to be flexible, but of course you can’t know exactly how it will feel until the moment of the performance.
On October 22 Boston Ballet will open its season with Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Are you excited about playing it?
I believe we will be the first American company to perform John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s music is, for me, profoundly moving, and few composers match his sense of large-scale emotional trajectory. We are very fortunate to be able to perform this piece as a ballet orchestra. While I’ve performed several other Mahler symphonies, this will be my first time performing the Third, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the visual element will contribute to creating a larger collaborative work.
Is it a problem for you that ballet repertoire is rather limited?
While the repertoire may traditionally have had quantitative limitations, fortunately that isn’t the case with respect to the quality of the music. We’re lucky to be living at a time when the ballet repertoire has been significantly expanded. One of the major contributions of George Balanchine was to figure out how to enlarge the range of pieces used in ballet. Looking at our upcoming and recent seasons, you’ll find pieces by Mahler, Schubert, Dvořák, and Webern, none of which were originally written for dance. To me, the divide between symphonic and ballet repertoire is much smaller than it once was, and it’s continually shrinking.
This year Boston Ballet will be giving 42 performances of The Nutcracker. How do you feel about playing it so often?
Playing a Nutcracker run is really a unique experience. In the orchestral world it’s common to repeat repertoire, but never so often in such a short period of time. Fortunately, The Nutcracker is such a well-written score that I’ve never found myself getting bored with the piece.
What are some of the virtues of repeating repertoire?
Any given passage can be played in a number of ways, and repetition allows you to experiment within the orchestra to figure out what works. For example, the Harlequin variation in The Nutcracker is interesting because the accent is on the second beat of each bar, which gives it an off-kilter feeling. I didn’t think about why that is until I saw it performed onstage. Then I realized it’s because Harlequin is not human; he’s an automaton. Once I got that, I decided I wanted the accents to be a bit less rounded and the rhythm more exaggerated to make the passage sound more mechanical. It was something I had to do several times with the orchestra to figure out how to get the sound I was going for.
Some musicians believe that music played for the ballet necessarily has less interpretive depth because it must conform to the needs of the dancers. Do you believe that’s true?
No, that hasn’t been my experience. I think this view misrepresents the relationship between music and dance in that it implies that dancers’ needs will inhibit the expressive options available to musicians. I’ve found that the opposite is true. The visual element can help you reconsider your choices and find a more natural way of rendering the music.
Can you give me another example of how seeing a piece onstage changed your interpretation?
In Act I, Scene II, of La Bayadère, right before the confrontation between Gamzatti and Nikiya, there are about 16 bars in which Gamzatti has to process what she’s just overheard [that the man she loves has sworn to marry another]. It’s not just a matter of getting from one scene to the next. I didn’t really think about it until I went to a technical rehearsal and saw what was happening onstage. From that I was able to create a whole narrative in which each two-bar phrase meant something different. Musically, I would characterize these bars as a descent into hopelessness, which is conveyed both by the change of registers (from high to middle to low) and choice of harmony.
The psychological drama in this passage wasn’t obvious to me from the music alone. After seeing it onstage, I began to modify the style of articulation and the colors I was using so that I could find the musical equivalent of Gamzatti’s emotions. I tried to put myself in her frame of mind and feel what she would be feeling. This process completely changed the way I viewed the musical content of the piece, and it speaks to the way that working with dance can really inspire creativity.
How do you prepare to play music you’re not familiar with?
Months in advance I get as many recordings of the piece as I can find and listen to them with a score in front of me. Once we get closer to the performance, I put those recordings away because I think there’s a danger of locking yourself into another clarinet player’s way of doing things.
Then I start listening to other pieces by the composer. For Mahler’s Third Symphony, for example, I’ll listen to the other Mahler symphonies. So I’m absorbing the language without hearing the specific piece.
I start practicing weeks in advance. During this period you have to be your own harshest critic. The way I think about it is: you can only be as good as your taste, and you develop your taste by listening to lots of recordings, going to lots of concerts, and then asking yourself: what do I like, what don’t I like, and why? If you can’t evaluate the quality of your own playing, how can you improve?
How does the conductor, as the liaison between the pit and the stage, help you relate to the dancers during performances?
I think the conductor’s role goes far beyond simply ensuring that the music and dance are rhythmically together; it is essential in coordinating the character of the music with what is being portrayed on stage. Often in rehearsal, Jonathan will describe to us a specific motion or dramatic point so that we can find the appropriate sound.
During orchestra rehearsals I’ve heard Jonathan say: “If you’re not with me at this point, I’m in big trouble.” What does that mean exactly?
I think that mostly happens when the cue comes from onstage. Sometimes the conductor is cueing the dancers, and sometimes they’re cueing him. If he catches the cue, but we don’t catch him, there’s going to be a problem.
You can figure out over the course of the performance who’s dancing onstage just by how various sections go. Different soloists have different idiosyncrasies in their phrasing, and that’s a good thing in terms of how the individual dancer’s personality is expressed. It’s always possible to come up with modifications that make musical sense. The goal is to find the best possible synthesis between the dance and the music.
I don’t want to minimize the amount of freedom one still has as a musician, especially as a principal player. The conductor is providing the framework, but within that, there’s a fair amount of room in which you can express your individuality. The boundaries are more like guides than handcuffs.
How does the conductor let you know when a difficult passage is coming up?
He may make a larger gesture or make changes in the tempo, how accented his beats are, or how the music pulls back at the end. The assumption is that is that we’re always being attentive. In this kind of music you can’t let your mental focus slip for a minute.
Do you watch video clips to get a sense of what’s going on onstage?
Often the part of the ballet I’m interested in is not included in video clips because it’s not in a big pas de deux or solo. I’ve found it more valuable to attend a tech rehearsal. They’re often scheduled between our morning and evening orchestra rehearsals, so it works quite well.
The first time I went to a tech rehearsal was in 2012 when the new production of The Nutcracker was about to open, and Jonathan suggested that we see it if we had the chance. Seeing a tech rehearsal [with piano accompaniment] really helps give me a mental image of what’s happening on onstage, but I also go just because I love watching the dancers. I find it inspiring on a physical as well as an artistic level. It’s amazing to me that dancers have to be phenomenal athletes and at the same time have artistic vulnerability.
Do you have favorite pieces in the ballet repertoire?
I really enjoy playing Prokofiev’s music, and so far I’ve had the chance to play both Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet with Boston Ballet. Not only does Prokofiev have a great sense of orchestral color and harmony, but also his music really matches the drama of the moment very well. Stravinsky is also a favorite – the way rhythmic energy permeates every part of his pieces makes them a blast to play.
What are the most satisfying and challenging aspects of playing in a ballet orchestra?
The most satisfying thing is that the art form is more than just the sum of dance and music individually. The most challenging thing is maintaining a high level of energy for every performance, but I find that when the downbeat falls and the music starts, you overcome any physical or mental fatigue you might have. That’s a big benefit of being passionate about what you do.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope that orchestral playing will always be at the center of my career. There’s something really special to me about the scale and variety of colors and sounds an orchestra can create. I’d like to start some more chamber music collaborations in the near future to explore a side of the clarinet repertoire that I’m less familiar with. Ideally, I’d want a mix of symphonic, ballet, opera, and chamber music, but finding the appropriate balance can be tricky.
Boston Ballet performs John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler at the Boston Opera House from October 22-November 1.
For more details, video trailer and tickets, click here .