The first time Earl Lee conducted an orchestra to perform with live dancers was three years ago on the Amphitheater stage.
The former David Effron Conducting Fellow has returned to guest conduct the Music School Festival Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. Monday in the Amp as they perform with the Chautauqua Festival Dancers.
“When I was here in 2014 as a fellow, it was an unforgettable experience collaborating with the dancers,” Lee said. “Ever since, I’ve wanted to do more.”
The MSFO will begin the program with Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov’s “Raymonda Variations,” a special piece for Lee since he first conducted it as a fellow in 2014. Lee said the “beautiful score” follows a classic ballet story line. It’s about a wanderer who seduces a girl, but her fiancé shows up to save her in time.
Patricia McBride, master teacher in the School of Dance, staged the piece, which was choreographed by George Balanchine.
“It’s a joy and a pleasure to stage this work,” McBride said.
Though the Festival dancers performed it at the July 16 Student Gala, they’ve continued to work with McBride to perfect the piece, which features eight solos.
“Using the classical vocabulary, you have to be so pure,” McBride said. “There’s no hiding when you wear a tutu and pink tights. It’s so revealing, so it has to be really very precise.”
In addition to the Glazunov, Lee will lead the MSFO in Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. featuring soloist Rixang Huang According to Lee, there’s a strange connection between the two composers: Prokofiev composed his concerto as a student in St. Petersburg for a competition where Glazunov was a judge. Glazunov hated the piece, Lee said, but went with the majority and Prokofiev won the prize.
“It’s a short concerto (with) no stop,” Lee said. “It’s 17 minutes, but packed with incredible journey and musical episodes.”
Mark Diamond, resident choreographer at the School of Dance, originally choreographed this piece in the early 1990s for a company of professional dancers at the Institution called the Chautauqua Ballet, then a few years later with both the Charlotte Ballet and students in the School of Dance.
“It has a more mature feel to the choreography because it’s challenging and has a lot of style,” Diamond said.
He described the piece as “neoclassical,” which he said differs from contemporary ballets because of the types of movements.
“Neoclassical is sort of what you might call a lot of Balanchine, a lot of twists and movements away from pure classical arms and things,” Diamond said.
According to Diamond, the piece is “purely built around the structure of the piano concerto.” Two lead couples dressed in red and amber begin the piece, and are followed by a series of dancers and motifs throughout. At one point, Diamond said, it’s as if the men are running through a forest, dashing after each other.
Another section focuses on subtle yet sharp, intentional movements of the shoulders, elbows and wrists of the women. Another couple enters the piece dressed in amber and yellow for a section that Diamond described as “abstract and simple,” yet challenging because of “very delicate” movements that require focus and balance.
“It’s just really exciting,” Diamond said. “You don’t really know all the risks that the dancers and pianist are taking but it seems like it’s just all taking place, it’s like a big happening.”
Lee will also conduct the orchestra to Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Symphony No. 38. He will share the orchestra with Rebecca Tong, the 2017 David Effron Conducting Fellow, who will lead the students in Jean Françaix’s “Le Roi Nu.”
“When you have the element of live music, it adds another dimension to it,” said Michael Vernon, resident faculty member and choreographer for the piece.
The choreography, which Vernon debuted at last Sunday’s Student Gala, is inspired by a French cabaret.
“As you create the ballet, you see the dancers improve and then as the dancers improve, the ballet improves,” Vernon said.
It features eight sections that Vernon said are unrelated, even though the same dancers perform throughout the piece.
“I wanted it to be more like revue, like the old-fashioned revue than a ballet per se,” Vernon said.
Elements like the costumes, which Vernon said draw from both French and Japanese elements of chic, and the wigs, create a “theatrical atmosphere.”
“What I like to do here in Chautauqua is give them a ballet where they can really learn how to be part of an ensemble and also perform on their own,” Vernon said.
For Vernon, creating new choreography is an “enjoyable, creative” experience.
“Playground Teasers,” choreographed by the School of Dance’s Director of Contemporary Studies Sasha Janes, will also return to the stage tonight but with another section. In its full form, the piece has five sections.
Elijah Spies, a violist, said although there’s a lot of music to rehearse for tonight’s program, he’s enjoying Lee’s detailed and focused approach.
While tonight’s performance is an opportunity for the young artists to collaborate, it also presents challenges for the young musicians. Spies said tonight’s performance offers less room for flexibility than last week’s MSFO performance of Debussy’s “La Mer” since the dancers are used to performing with a recording.
“That offers a little bit of difficulty in terms of tempo,” Spies said. “It’s a challenge, but I think it will be interesting and I’m excited to work with them.”