The Way Ballet Should Sound

Producer Andrew Holdsworth reflects on the orchestral recording of Grades 1–3.

On 27 February 2011, the Orchestra of English National Ballet assembled in Henry Wood Hall in London to record 45 pieces of music for the Grades 1–3 syllabi, launched in January 2012. It was the first time in the Academy’s history that an orchestra had been used for a syllabus recording. Producer Andrew Holdsworth remembers the day.

Tuning up
The second hand inches towards the vertical and at 11 o’clock exactly, the lead oboe plays an ‘A’ for the orchestra to tune to. Each of the 79 musicians in the Henry Wood Hall is aware of the huge responsibility of today’s recording session, which will create the musical backdrop for the next generation of young RAD dancers. Over the ten years that I’ve been producing music for the RAD, recording projects have become more and more ambitious, from the Studio Series CDs, through After ClassPre-Primary and Primary in Dance, and most recently the new Intermediate Foundation and Intermediate syllabi.

Planning for this session began several months ago. The panel responsible for choreographing the new grades, led by artistic director Lynn Wallis, wanted to offer children the authentic experience of dancing to orchestral music. Jonathan Still, Music Development Manager at the RAD (and my co-producer on these recordings), was charged with choosing a variety of music which would broaden and deepen the musical experience of young dancers. Roughly half of the new syllabus was recorded in early February with a small ensemble of orchestral soloists at the recording studio Potton Hall in Suffolk, and all of the larger scale works will be recorded today.

Recording the first piece
By 11:02 the orchestra is ready to go and the conductor Gavin Sutherland begins to run through the first pieces of the day. The recording engineer fades up the main pair of microphones in the control room. The string section sounds rich, expansive and dynamic but some of the other instruments sound a little distant or insubstantial. Gradually, more microphones are faded up to bring out the detail in the instruments at the back of the orchestra. The woodwind becomes more focused, the trombones begin to bloom, the percussion becomes crisper and more dynamic. The ambient microphones are added in and the picture is complete. The sound coming through the speakers is amazing. The clock shows 11:18 as I switch the red light on for the first time. The conductor raises his baton.

Two disk drives spin round seven thousand times per minute as signals from each of the 22 microphones are recorded at the highest digital resolution possible. The opening chords in the harp establish the metre and the key of C sharp major. The piece is Valse Lente from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia, which will be used for battements fondus in Grade 2. The violins introduce the melody over sparse harp chords and pizzicato from the double basses. A single oboe note anchors the harmony in the second phrase, which ends with a slight ritardando into the flute and glockenspiel playing the final note in unison. The French horns provide a sustained counter-melody under the repeat, until the wind section and the most delicate percussion sustain the final chord together. I close my eyes and I can feel the movement in my bones and muscles. I’ve accompanied ballet for 27 years and I have never managed to create anything in class as evocative as this.

The piano and the orchestra
The piano is an extraordinary instrument. It can provide a very good approximation of an orchestra but it has its limitations. Once a note is struck, there’s nothing that can be done to alter the quality of its sustain as it dies away. The note will simply sound until you remove your finger from the keyboard or your foot from the pedal. A violinist, on the other hand, is in control of every aspect of a note for its duration. The note may begin quietly and get louder, or begin loudly and get quieter. The speed of vibrato, the position of the bow on the string, the way the bow is used, all of these may change the nature of the sound produced. A wind or brass player is limited by the length of their breath but they too are able to vary the quality of the sound they produce in many different ways. Percussion instruments offer an array of different textures, timbres, rhythms and dynamics, and, combined together, these orchestral groups create a sound that has enormous potential to induce the most complex of emotional and physical responses.

Valse Lente is magical. The tempo feels just right and every member of the orchestra responds sensitively to each other and to the conductor. The resulting phrasing and balance is perfect. One down, 44 to go. The orchestra turn to page 2.

The world of the orchestral librarian
The process of sourcing and preparing the orchestral scores for today’s session has been a complex and time-consuming one. Unlike standard orchestral ‘concert’ repertoire which is widely available and comprehensively catalogued, music that was specifically written for ballet is often much more difficult to track down. Some works exist only in one or two handwritten scores, many of which haven’t seen the light of day for years, perhaps decades. Ballet companies rely on a closely-knit group of orchestral librarians who loan their precious scores to other companies – often thousands of miles away – when they’re needed for a performance. We’re very fortunate that the orchestral librarian at the ENB, Lars Payne, has been able to use his wide contact base to find even the most esoteric scores in the new syllabi. Preparing ageing, sometimes hand-written scores for this session has taken him weeks, as every note and every dynamic and expression mark from the original score has had to be input by hand into his computer, before he can print off legible parts for each player.

Layers of sound: interpretation and musicality
We move on to the second piece – another waltz – Wein, Weib und Gesang by Johann Strauss, used in Pliés in Grade 2. The orchestra here creates an entirely different sound. The brass section and snare drum provide the rhythm and punctuate the melody, which this time is played by the wind and strings. There are many layers to this music. On first listen, dance pupils might enjoy the waltz’s rhythm and melody. Gradually, they may become aware of the cellos and basses laying down the roots of the chords. There is a huge amount to respond to in this piece and different children will respond to it in different ways: some to the delicate staccato of the piccolo, some to the soaring melody in the strings. Some may react to the running arpeggios in the clarinets and harp, and some to the subtle variations in the percussion patterns. This is what musical interpretation is all about and I have no doubt that the combination of using a pianist (or piano recording) in class for practising these new exercises followed by an orchestral recording when the steps have been learnt, will result in a significant improvement in that most difficult-to-teach of qualities, ‘musicality‘.

The work of the producer: final thoughts
As the session progresses, we record a huge variety of music; from Purcell to Prokofiev, from Mozart to Cole Porter. Six hours (and 139 takes) later, we have everything we need. I’m looking forward to taking the disc drives tomorrow – to listen to the music over and over again, away from the ticking clock of the session. One of my jobs as producer is to edit and mix this music so it sounds as good in the dance studio as it did in Henry Wood Hall. After watching hours of pilot classes, I have a clear picture in my mind of what each of these pieces needs to bring out in the dancers. A little more flutein the balance might help the phrasing here, or perhaps more of the castanets will help the timing there. My favourite piece to mix will be the Coda from the 5th act of Don Quixote, which is being used for Grand Allegro in Grade 3. Children are going to have so much fun dancing to this music. The Orchestra of English National Ballet firing on all cylinders is an absolute joy to behold. How can you not jump higher when there’s a bass drum and full brass section willing you on? How can you not hold that end position until the conductor brings off the flutes and the cellos? How can you not be moved by and want to move to this music?

To me, this is the way ballet should sound.

Andrew Holdsworth, March 2011