Pity the ballet orchestras of the world – consigned to toil in eternal obscurity in an orchestra pit, night after night, while the dancers get all the applause.
The National Ballet of Canada took steps to redress this ancient wrong on Tuesday night, when it honoured its own orchestra by presenting the ensemble in concert at Koerner Hall as part of the company's ongoing celebration of its 60th anniversary.
There wasn't a dancer to be seen on stage – except for National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain, who introduced the event like a proud den mother. Also at the podium was actor Colm Feore, recalling past glories of the National Ballet's six decades as historic company photos were projected on an overhead screen.
But the concert really belonged to music director David Briskin, who led his orchestra through a program of ballet music from the company's productions.
In so doing, he inadvertently made two convincing arguments: Not all ballet music is suitable as concert repertoire, and performance practices cultivated in an orchestra pit don't always work well when the same orchestra is up on stage.
The second point was driven home with the opening piece on the program, the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. Under Briskin, the orchestra's sound was forced and emphatic. In other words, they played as they might in an orchestra pit, trying to project their sound out into a large theatre.
This blunt approach reared its head with unfortunate frequency throughout the all-Russian first half of the program: excerpts from Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin. Energy and enthusiasm were in abundant supply, but often at the expense of subtlety and refinement.
And it wasn't just the players. Briskin abetted this problem with rhythmically strict interpretations, as though he had dancers to worry about. He didn't, on this occasion, and so he might have taken greater liberties with the Gliding Dance of the Maidens movement of Polovtsian Dances.
However, an impressive highlight of the first half was concertmaster Benjamin Bowman's violin solo in Swan Lake. His brilliant pyrotechnics and expressive fluidity were welcome contributions.
It was in the program's second half that the repertoire was sometimes questionable. An excerpt of Ludwig Minkus's Don Quixote was a mercifully short bit of polka-band fluff that had no place in an orchestral concert. Compared with it, Léo Delibes's light Prelude and Waltz from Coppélia, which followed, was a work of profound genius. Next, Erik Satie's elegantly understated Gymnopédie No. 1 helped to restore the program's dignity. In this piece, Mark Rogers's oboe solo was strong but strident in tone.
England's Joby Talbot was the only living composer performed. His score for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was bright and glittery, bursting with funky rhythms. It's entertaining but insubstantial music: A short excerpt would have been nice, but this suite went on at great length.
Less Talbot might have made room for more Stravinsky. Only two movements of his Firebird were performed (the Berceuse and Finale) – but Briskin and his orchestra played it so well that I was sorry to hear it end. Here, at last, everything went right. The orchestra gave a sophisticated performance, with a full range of colours and dynamics.
Finally, with Leonard Bernstein's Mambo, the orchestra made a virtue of heavy-handedness with a wild and crazy romp through this famous excerpt from West Side Story. A good time was had by all – especially the percussion section.
National Ballet Orchestra 60th Anniversary Concert
- At Koerner Hall
- in Toronto on Tuesday
Special to The Globe and Mail