Don Quixote: Q&A with Music Director Emil de Cou

How many orchestra members are in the PNB Orchestra?
It varies from program to program.  For Don Quixote, we’ll have 62-64 musicians.  It’s a pretty big symphony orchestra.  When you come to the show, it’s always fun to come and look in {the pit} because there are a lot of people down there that you don’t really see during the performance.  The fun thing with Don Quixote is that it’s like doing a live Hollywood film.  You have all the elements of a movie—a storyline, soundtrack, costumes, lights, set, actors—but it’s done live every night.



What preparations will the PNB music department undertake for the premiere of Don Q?
For me, I get the score in advance and I go to the studio during piano rehearsals. We have 3 company pianists on staff. They have to practice the music at home, and it’s a new ballet so they’ll also get a DVD of the ballet to study and make annotations about the dance steps on their score.  Then they go to the first rehearsal, and I sit by the piano and conduct the piano.

The orchestra musicians will get the score a month in advance and practice their parts at home. We only have 6 hours of orchestra rehearsal, and it’s a whole evening of music so that’s not that much time.  Then we have 3 hours of time with a stage rehearsal and then we have opening night.  So, it’s a pretty quick process with the orchestra. 

So the orchestra has 6 hours alone?
Yes, then three hours with the dancers for dress rehearsal.  So, we’ll probably run it straight through and then do notes either after each act or at the very end.  We might have 45 minutes left over to rehearse things, and whatever Peter [Boal] wants to rehearse.

That’s not much time at all.
It’s not!  That’s why you have to be really prepared in advance. People think rehearsals are where you learn the music.  But rehearsals are where you know the music and you rehearse the musical part of it, not the note part.

How much time will orchestra members spend at home rehearsing?
It depends on the instrument. The first violins play most of the music and most of the melody, also the woodwinds, flutes, and oboes have more melodic music so it’s harder for them. They could spend anywhere between 2-4 hours practicing their parts in advance.  Not all of it is hard, so you focus on the parts that are the most demanding. 

Is it different because it’s a premiere?
I go to more rehearsals than I would otherwise because it’s not just new to me; it’s new to the dancers too.  Alexei Ratmansky was here for rehearsals in December, and I went to all them because it’s his ballet.  It’s very interestingwatching him work with our dancers.  He’s very, very detailed. He stops a lot but it’s always really encouraging and very kind, positive, and upbeat. It’s his ballet and you also want to get his point of view—why he’s doing this, how he develops the characters and what the characters are supposed to feel.  It has a subtle influence, but an important influence, on how you look at music. 

Did he have specific tempo requests?
He does; he likes it fast. I’m used to following the dancers incredibly closely, and was trained to watch the dancers and follow every step.  In this version {Alexi} wants the music to lead and to go quickly.  I have to divorce myself from just following toe shoes and waiting for someone to balance and then catch up.  It’s about showmanship too, but it’s more about storytelling. 

Have you conducted this score before?
I have conducted two other productions of Don Quixote. It’s always different.  The famous dance parts are pretty much the same, but every version of this ballet puts it in different order or adds some other pieces, take other pieces out.  It’s not like Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty where it’s pretty much standard and the music is left alone. Don Q is really more like a film score than it is a symphony.  Tchaikovsky ballets are more like a symphony. Stravinsky’s Petruschka or Firebird are more like a tone poem.  This is more like a film underscoring or like a musical.  Like with a production of Carousel or Sound of Music, people take things out and move things around a little bit to make it your own.  This will be new for me because I’ve never done this particular production.

What is the hallmark of the Don Q score?  What comes to mind when you think of the score?
It’s very Spanish.  It sounds like one of the great Spanish composers.  Which is funny, because Minkus was an Austrian living in Russsia.  He was writing music to sound purposefully exotic.  Because in the mid 1800’s in Russia, to have a ballet about Don Q set in Spain, it was very exotic because people couldn’t travel that far.

What is like having the dancers play instruments on stage?
Well, it’s tricky because we have some of the same instruments in the pit.  It’s really hard to dance and play the castanets; it’s hard to play the castanets period. For the dancers, the castanets are two pieces of wood cupped in your hand and you hit them in your hand.  Castanets in orchestras are taken apart.  They’re dissected and the two parts are there suspended above about an inch {side by side} and they’re hit on metal. When Kitri comes on stage she has to run, think of her steps, and jump and do all of this crazy stuff, AND play the castanets.  So, what we will do is play the castanets with her in the pit, just in case she misses a beat.   

One of my favorite parts of Don Quixote is in the 3rd act, when Basilio lifts Kitri with one hand and holds her in the air sideways while she’s holding a tambourine.  And, she’s supposed to shake it really, really loud because the music has a pause.  It’s really hard to shake a tambourine when you’re being held 20 feet in the air by a guy with one hand, and you don’t want to fall.  So, we’ll double the tambourine there so she doesn’t have to do all the work.  She’ll play too; the dancers have very good rythm–they have to.

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