Beatrice Jona Affron first arrived at Pennsylvania Ballet in 1993 as the assistant conductor. Later, she was promoted to Resident Conductor and in 1997 she became the Company’s Music Director and Conductor. While at Pennsylvania Ballet, Beatrice has conducted many works by George Balanchine and other classics, such as Giselle, The Firebird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Sleeping Beauty. In addition to conducting Pennsylvania Ballet, Beatrice is a well-known opera conductor. Some of Beatrice’s opera engagements include Dominick Argento’s opera, Miss Havisham’s Fire with Opera Theatre Saint Louis, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with the Boston Lyric Opera, and Hansel and Gretel and The Tender Land at New England Conservatory. She is a native of New York City and a graduate of Yale University and the New England Conservatory.
Q. What musical instrument did you begin playing?
I started off playing the violin.
Q. When did you start thinking of becoming a conductor?
Not until I was getting ready to graduate from college. My junior year of college I took a course by the person who conducted the college orchestra. I enjoyed it but I didn’t really think about the idea of being a conductor until it was almost time to graduate and I was wondering what I was going to do after I graduated. It was really more of an intuition than a well thought out decision but I stayed for an additional year to conduct one of the school orchestras. When I applied to graduate school, that’s when it became more of a concrete real life decision.
Q. Were you going to a place like the New England Conservatory?
That’s where I got my master’s degree.
Q. Was Gunther Schuller there?
He was no longer president at the time. My teacher who was on the faculty was Pascal Verrot. However, I studied privately with Robert Spano who is now the director of the Atlanta Symphony and is a wonderful teacher.
Q. What additional skills do you need to be a conductor as opposed to a violinist?
Score reading skills which are useful for all musicians are really, really necessary if you’re going to conduct. Score reading skills, communication skills, having some understanding of what it’s like to play the different instruments. And knowing how to talk to people to get the best results.
Q. Did you have a desire to conduct ballet orchestras?
No. I must confess, I had hardly ever been to the ballet. Before I became the assistant conductor of Pennsylvania Ballet, I had only seen one ballet. The first ballet I saw was on my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. I was taken to see Coppélia. I was more of an opera kid. I grew up in New York City and my father took me to see the opera a lot, even on school nights and that was very much a part of my life. My life was not ballet. The second time I saw a ballet before taking the job was when I actually went to Pennsylvania Ballet and saw their production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. I had never seen The Nutcracker until I was in my twenties. Of course, I’ve more than made up for it since.
Q. What skills does a conductor need to conduct a ballet as opposed to just conducting an orchestra?
You need a real dance education by which I don’t mean that I needed to learn how to dance which is fortunate for me. But I did need to learn as much I could of the dance vocabulary. Dancers generally don’t have a musician’s vocabulary, so it’s the conductor and the pianist who have to bridge that gap in order to understand what it is the dancers need. You have to be able to talk about dance and learn about it. However, even more useful is developing an eye for how the dancers breathe and what their phrasing is like and all of those things which take time to learn how to interpret.
Q. But you conduct opera as well?
Yes. I conduct a lot of opera and I would say the two are not as different as you might think because there is a very nice collaboration between the pit and the stage in both genres. The obvious difference is that in opera the people on stage are musicians, so there isn’t that language barrier that one might have with dancers. But the issues with phrasing and breathing are very much analogous.
Q. Where do the musicians come from that make up the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra?
They mostly come from the Philadelphia area. They play in a variety of different groups including the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, The Philly Pops. You’re going to hear the same musicians in different configurations all over town.
Q. What do you look for in a musician?
Pretty much the same criteria that any orchestra big or small is looking for—solid play in tune, and the one thing that sets the successful auditioner apart because we tend to get very good people auditioning, is whether or not this person seems to really know the excerpt they’re playing. The audition consists of ballet excerpts and you can tell when the musician has really thought about how that excerpt fits into the whole, and what importance they give to the markings, the phrasings and so on. You can really tell whether a person has heard the piece before or not. That becomes astoundingly clear pretty early in a ten minute audition.
Q. One thing that surprised me in looking at the ballet orchestra in Boston where I’m from is how many members of the orchestra bring books and magazines and have them propped up on their music stands during the performances.
You’re not supposed to notice that. First of all, it’s not everyone. But regardless of that, if it’s a performance of The Nutcracker, the musicians have it timed precisely, especially wind, brass and percussion players who don’t play constantly. String players play constantly. They can’t read, especially in a Tschaikovsky ballet. But the harp player, for instance, has long stretches of time where he or she doesn’t play. Boston Ballet does over 40 performances of The Nutcracker. We do 27 or something. I think it’s pretty obvious why they might be reading, listening to the same music they’ve heard hundreds of times. If you’re sitting, you can’t play chess which I’ve heard has been done in some orchestras but not in mine. You can’t do that.
Q. The orchestra has many players for a big ballet. Can you as the conductor distinguish if one of the violinists or one of the brass players is not playing well or has played off key?
You can’t hide if you’re in the wind or brass section because each one of those players is a soloist. They each have their own distinct parts so, yes, that’s very easily detectable. In the string section, even given the size of my orchestra, you’d be surprised how much you can tell about what people are doing. For instance, you can tell by the energy their putting into their playing. That tells you a lot or how much bow they’re using, how alert they are, and then once in a while, someone will come to me and say, you know so and so really isn’t paying attention, and that’s normal and we talk to those people. It comes up.
Q. A while ago I interviewed Deanna Seay who’s a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet and I asked her if she ever talked to the conductor about a role she might be doing and she said and she said it very seriously, when she went to ballet school she was taught never to talk to the conductor.
If a dancer is going to talk to the conductor, they have to know what they want. They have to have good reason for approaching the conductor and they have to be clear in their request. The choreographer and the ballet master are the people with whom a conductor will have the most discussions about tempo and phrasing and so forth, but especially in full length classical story ballets where one dancer will do one sort of step in a certain variation and another dancer will do a whole different set of steps which you wouldn’t find in a Balanchine ballet – there the communication between the dancer and the conductor is very important. It’s in situations where literally a dancer’s not doing a jump here, he’s doing a turn, so he’s not going to use as much time. Then it’s important to communicate, but it has to be a fruitful form of communication, not just “it’s too fast or too slow.” You can tell a metronome to do that.
Q. While we’re on the subject of tempo, is that the most important thing and how does that get decided?
Mozart said, “Tempo is everything,” and that is the bottom line in working with dancers for sure. But after tempo is the very important element of phrasing. So the metronome marking might be very well within the ball park, but if it’s not phrased in a way the dancers can breathe, then it doesn’t matter that the metronome marking is close or even exact. You have to give the dancers the time that they need or push them when they need to be pushed. There’s a lot of back and forth. Even in the course of performances, there’s a lot of silent communication between the conductor and the dancers.
Q. The dancers rehearse first with the pianist, so I would assume all this must be decided upon before the rehearsal, so the pianist plays at the same tempo that you’re going to conduct at. Is that right?
Actually, it works sort of the other way around. The pianists and the dancers rehearse for weeks before I arrive. So I jump into the process once the tempos have basically been established and I learn a lot from them. They figure out a lot of the practicalities of what I need to do.
Q. What preparations do you personally go through?
If it’s a new piece of choreography then the only way I can prepare is to study the score. If it’s something that’s already been done, then I also have a video tape or DVD to study which is a big part of my homework. I try to gather these videos and DVDs as early as I can and really learn the choreography in my way. I could never dance them, of course, but I mark up the score. I take notes of the things that appear to be most important. I might even take down some metronome markings, so I have a ball park idea and so that’s my homework. By the time I get there for a piece that’s been done before I have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Q. How often do you rehearse the orchestra without dancers?
For everything but The Nutcracker we have 2 rehearsals. 2 three hour calls minus 20 minutes. For The Nutcracker we have one 3 hour call minus twenty minutes.
Q. Do you also have an additional rehearsal with the dancers?
We have a dress rehearsal on the same day as opening night and then we’re off and running. So it’s a three day process.
Q. Does Pennsylvania Ballet tour and if so do you go with them?
They used to tour a great deal. Now not very much. Last year, the Company went to City Center in New York City and that was a thrill. I got to go with them and we brought the orchestra along. We’ve done little mini-tours. We don’t actually call them tours. We call them run outs to various parts of Pennsylvania to Harrisburg and places like that within the state but that’s about it. It used to be a company that toured regularly but that changed before I got here.
Q. I read a review recently by a New York Times critic about a weekend of ballet with lots of different pieces. He was more of a music critic than a ballet critic and he complained that the music he obviously knew very well was distorted by its being used as a background for the ballet. What would you say about criticisms like that?
If you’re a musical purist than ballet is probably not going to be for you. One famous example of ballet changing a musical piece is Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings which Balanchine famously choreographed. It was the first piece he choreographed with what eventually became the New York City Ballet and Balanchine who was a profoundly musical man and a very good musician himself switched the third and forth movements. Maybe the critic was referring to this, I’m not sure. But yes, for someone who’s looking for the kind of bookend structure for Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the fact that these two movements have been switched is disruptive. On the other hand in the interests of the narrative—it’s not a narrative ballet but it does have a trajectory and a flow—it works brilliantly. The changes serve Balanchine’s needs to a tee. For the musical purist, I would say, go and watch Stravinsky’s ballets where Stravinsky and Balanchine collaborated because I think to hear those ballets in the concert halls leaves out a very, very important piece of the puzzle. To me, having had the privilege of conducting many of these works, now to hear them in the concert hall seems incomplete. They are great pieces and they’re wonderful to listen to, but they’re really meant as theater works.
Q. Some people criticize ballet music and say that many pieces lack the kind of musicality of pieces designed for the concert hall. Do you think that’s a valid criticism and I was wondering if you have any favorite musical gems that have been overlooked from the point of view of the music?
Definitely. With Prokofiev, there’s a piece you never hear in the concert hall which is a wonderful piece which is the ballet Prodigal Son. Many excellent musicians don’t know the music at all and I think it’s a wonderful gem. You’re lucky if you get to see it once in a while and I think it’s definitely concert hall worthy. I think there is a suite created for the concert hall but I don’t know if it’s performed very much. And we’re very fortunate because Pennsylvania Ballet does so much Balanchine. He had such wonderful taste in music that I’m happy to conduct just about everything Balanchine did. And I have a very soft spot in my heart for the story ballets like Coppélia and Giselle where the music is perhaps not concert worthy but is so effective for the theater and so charmingly composed. I love those works.
Q. While you’re conducting, do you have a lot of electronic gizmos that keep you plugged into what’s going on backstage and in other parts of the theater?
At Pennsylvania Ballet, we’re actually very low tech. I don’t have any electronic gizmos surrounding me at all. Not a one. I know that at the Opera House in Boston, the pit is so submerged the conductor needs a video monitor to see the dance. But that’s not the case in the two theaters we use in Philadelphia. One theater has a pretty deep pit but the podium is built up so I can see. For me the height of the podium is determined by being able to see the dancers’ feet. That’s enough. There are no gizmos.
Q. Can you think of composers out there today that you would like to see writing for the ballet?
I’m a little out of touch with young composers right now. I’ve worked a lot with Phillip Glass who has a real affinity for dance. And his music has been used very effectively in the dance world. From what I’ve heard in the last few years of contemporary compositions, I’m not sure a lot of composers are interested in composing for ballet. I might be wrong. I hope I am.
Q. Does your conducting change with different casts?
It does. Definitely. It depends on the style of each dancer. But particularly with classical ballet, there’s more leeway and more need to really serve the need of the individual dancers. With something like Agon, for instance, that’s not going to vary much from night to night. Something that is so rhythmic; the tempos tend to get locked in pretty well.
Q. What are some of the things that you enjoy about conducting the ballet?
I enjoy the collaborative nature of it. I really love to work in the theater which is why from my resume you’ll see I’ve done all this ballet and a lot of opera. That’s where I’m comfortable and I feel it’s very stimulating to be working with choreographers and directors and singers and dancers – I like all that multi-tasking very much.
Q. Does your orchestra put out CDs? Is it something you’re thinking about doing?
We haven’t put out any CDs. It would be a nice thing to do. And there’s certainly enough repertoire we’ve been doing over the years that we could put out a fine CD.
Q. This is Pennsylvania Ballet’s 45th season. Are there any specific pieces that you’re looking forward to conducting?
We’re doing Cinderella this year which I always look forward to conducting. I love conducting Prokofiev ballets and Cinderella’s a great work. So, that’s a highlight for me. We’re also doing some pieces that are new to me coming up in October. The Shostakovich First Piano Concerto and Twyla Tharp’s Push Come to Shove which Baryshnikov famously danced. I look forward to things that I know well and I also look forward to new things and they’re usually pretty evenly distributed across the season.