San Francisco Ballet Curtain Talk, April 11

14 Apr

San Francisco Ballet goes to considerable effort to inform its audience. Outreach is part of today’s tool for non-profit organizations to whet an appetite for its offerings, theatrical, symphonic, operatic, etc. San Francisco Ballet is following the precedent of dance in the schools it started back when Richard E. Le Blond, Jr. became the company’s President and CEO; he was charged in acquiring property for the company at the eastern edge of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s A-2 borders and across from the San Francisco Opera House.

Le Blond used Dance in the Schools as the vehicle, sending Ruthie Bossieux and later Crystal Mann out into the public schools of the A-2 area to expose the largely African-American school children to the refined delights of classical ballet and the challenge of moving to music, drumming and some form of organized pattern. Needless to report, it worked, handsomely, and the program became a permanent part of the company’s overall education agenda. Two of its earliest students, Ikolo Griffin and Chidosie Nyzerem trained at San Francisco Ballet School and entered the company as members of the corps de ballet. For whatever reason, neither was promoted to soloist status and both left for more fertile ground. Griffin became a principal with Dance Theatre of Harlem and then joined Joffrey Ballet when DTH folded. Returning to San Francisco, Griffin danced with Smuin Ballet, leaving the ensemble following Smuin’s death, San Francisco Opera, Oakland Ballet, Menlowe Ballet and has staged Nutcracker for regional companies. Chidosie looked abroad, returned to San Francisco, eventually dancing with Ballet auf Rhein in Dusseldorf, Germany.

The Dance in the Schools program became a permanent part of San Francisco Ballet when it hired Charles Chip McNeal in 1980. In addition to the various hosts for the 7 p.m. slot on various performance evenings featuring dancers, choreographers and technical personnel and visiting professionals, the program has a staff of three, utilizing four musicians and and three dancers. It’s an impressive outreach program to educate the public about dance and music’s role in dance.

April 11, Mary Ruud hosted a conversation with Concertmaster Roy Malan, a forty year veteran of a forty year old ballet orchestra. He is retiring at the end of the 2014 season. “I wanted to make it a round number,” he remarked in response to Mary’s comment of the curtain talk being “bittersweet,” before her queries and audience questions provided perspective on the delicate and extensive job comprising the post of a concertmaster. The conversation will be available on San Francisco Ballet’s pod cast.

“The company’s orchestra dates from Michael Smuin’s return to San Francisco from American Ballet Theatre. The orchestra was then a pick up company. Michael’s friend Alex Horvath told him he needed a permanent orchestra.” The orchestra was formed with Malan as the concertmaster and principal violinist.

Ruud asked Malan to describe the differences between playing in a symphony orchestra and a ballet orchestra. “The range of music played is more extensive than a regular orchestra. In symphony orchestras one usually plays once and goes home. A ballet orchestra will frequently play twice a day, and the variety within one program can be startling. I can remember playing three concerti in one program, Bruch, Glass and an Australian composer.” A further difference is aim: a ballet orchestra’s job is “to make the dancers look good.” In a symphony orchestra, “it is the music.”

As concertmaster, it is Malan’s responsibility to mark the strings according to the conductor’s desire, to confer with the conductor “how he wants the strings bowed” and to see they are bowed accordingly. “It’s not something you learn in conservatory, it’s a sixth sense you develop with the conductor. It’s what someone in the Boston Symphony Orchestra said, ‘You have to play what you hear from behind while leading,’ because the violinist in the back is not so close to the conductor and may not pick up quickly.”

Malan also mentioned that timing at the beginning of a performance is something else. “You don’t want the orchestra to stand up too early and obscure the conductor or too late so the audience doesn’t know to applaud.”

In response to Ruud’s question about the relationship of choreographer to music, Malan responded, “Lew Christensen never got in the way of music. He used to stop the dancers and make them listen, making them hear what he heard in the music.” He spoke of two other choreographers as having respect for the music: Mark Morris and John Neumeier.

When Ruud queried Malan regarding his personal background, he replied that he was born in South Africa; 15 he received a scholarship which took him to London. One of his first teachers was Yehuda Menuhin who suggested that he apply to Juilliard. He smiled slightly saying that he was in Ivan Galanian’s classes with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. He later studied at the Curtis Institute with Efram Zimbalist, and said that Zimbalist was the type of teacher he benefited from because of his prior training with Menuhin and Galanian.

Malan also mentioned it was the practice for new orchestra leaders to bring their own concert masters with them. When Denis de Couteau retired, the orchestra went to the musician’s union and had the stipulation written into contracts that the concertmaster remained the same and was not replaced by when there was a change in conductors, quite a compliment to Malan.

At one time the orchestra traveled with San Francisco Ballet; increasingly union regulations have contracts with other houses requiring the use of in house musicians, including soloists.

Malan was asked about his instrument. He left Curtis he used scholarship funds to purchase a French violin. He didn’t like it, selling it. He heard a violin he liked and learned it was made by a man named Arthur Smith in Australia. He spent some time in Sydney advertising and interviewing violinists who possessed a Smith. He eventually met one of Smith’s sons and met the violin maker about to retire. He took pity on Malan, sold him a violin which he has played ever since.

Asked retirement plans, Malan said, “Music for its own sake. I practice two hours a day. I also do yoga ninety minutes in the morning, so I have to get up at 4 a.m. to practice before coming to a ten o’clock rehearsal. I live in Santa Cruz; lately, I’ve been feeling the commute and there are always those times when I’m concerned whether I will make it.” Malan’s teaching at U.C. Santa Cruz has been limited to Mondays, his off day, and he looks towards stretching instruction out over the week. “I’ve been playing with a string quartet, participating in contemporary music concerts and leading a small orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Robin Sutherland and I have participated in the Telluride Festival for four decades.”

It won’t be long before Roy Malan will be so occupied with his active retirement he will wonder how he ever made it to work.

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