Orchestra Next and Eugene Ballet: Creating the total dance experience

Orchestra brings live music to dance, training to musicians, a complete experience to audiences.


When the Eugene Ballet Company performs Sergey Prokofiev’s 1944 ballet Cinderella at Eugene’s Hult Center next weekend, it will do so with live music provided by Orchestra Next, a Eugene-based ensemble founded by UO associate professor of music Brian McWhorter.

The Grand Ball with Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella, Brian Ruiz as Prince Charming. A guest (Isaac Jones) and stepsister Clarinda (Beth Maslinoff) look on. Photo: Toni Pimble.

Live music performances with the Eugene Ballet started three years ago when McWhorter learned from EBC Managing Director Riley Grannan that the 2012 production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker would use pre-recorded music as it had in past seasons. McWhorter proposed that he organize an orchestra to perform live with the ballet during its two-day run. Grannan and Artistic Director Toni Pimble agreed and the idea for the orchestra was born.

“We had to put things together very quickly — I think about three months or so,” McWhorter recalls. “There were all sorts of challenges that included getting all the principals on board, auditioning for the student positions, getting the website up and running, generating a buzz, making sure we had all the sheet music, getting insurance, arranging rehearsals, and, of course, raising all the money to pay everyone. The administrative team was just myself and (general manager) Sarah Viens … who continues to be an invaluable asset for the orchestra.”

McWhorter saw an opportunity to both benefit the ballet company by bringing its listeners live music, and to benefit local musicians by creating a long-needed training ensemble that bridges the experiential gap between student and professional musician. “The most iconic examples of training orchestras are the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and New World Symphony — but even these orchestras don’t provide the students the chance to regularly sit next to professionals,” McWhorter explains. “Orchestra Next does. And I think our collaboration with the Eugene Ballet makes us all the more unique.”

But a training opportunity alone wouldn’t provide enough compensation for the hard-working players. McWhorter insisted that they be paid a fair wage. “In our first two years, Orchestra Next raised the funding to pay our musicians through crowdsourcing, advertising, and from a few very important grants that got us off the ground,” McWhorter notes. Each ON fellow receives a full scholarship to the program plus a $250 honorarium for each production. A typical production week usually includes 3–4 rehearsals and 2–4 performances. Our professionals are paid competitive rates and we’re working hard to make it one of the best paying gigs in the region. Orchestra Next would not be where it is today were it not for the generous support of the community and businesses that stepped up to bring live music to the ballet. We still allocate something like 95% of our budget to the musicians directly and I remain a volunteer.”

Pimble agrees that the arrangement is mutually beneficial to Eugene’s dance and music communities. “The ability to include live music with dance is often beyond the financial means of regional ballet companies. The opportunity to have the full artistic experience of the ballet with live music is the ultimate performance for any ballet company. For the Eugene Ballet Company, one of the smallest but busiest professional companies in the U.S., it is a great accomplishment in a community this size.”

The Art Of Collaboration

The success of the Eugene Ballet Company’s productions with Orchestra Next is the result of close collaboration among McWhorter, Toni Pimble, and the respective cadres of dancers and musicians in their charge. “The orchestra typically starts to rehearse about a week ahead of the first show in Eugene and Toni is usually there tapping me on the shoulder with a better tempo or explaining that a part of the music needs more drama or more shape, etc.,” McWhorter says. “Toni is a sensational artistic director and choreographer and I’ve been enjoying working with her a great deal.”

Pimble works with McWhorter to assure that dancers understand the tempo and nuances of the music. “Tempo — fast or slow — is very important to the success of the collaboration between the conductor, choreographer and dancers” Pimble explains. “We rehearse with a recording up until we get on stage at the Hult Center. Brian listens to the recording and learns the tempi. But there is more to it than basic tempo. How a phrase is finessed in the recording also becomes an important part of the collaboration. There is a lot of ebb and flow in the recording of Cinderella which we are currently rehearsing, with some ritards [slowdowns] of the tempo at the end of a phrases which are choreographed. So it is important for Brian as conductor to note those ritards and include them in the way he conducts.”

“During variations – especially the male variations, the dancer may execute pirouettes and, if he or she is very on balance, the conductor may have to wait for the ending pose of the dancer to give the cue to the orchestra for the final note of the variation,” Pimble continues. “This is the exciting collaboration that happens on stage in the moment and makes a live performance that very special experience.”

From the Stage: Dancer’s Perspective

Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella. Photo: Antonio Anacan.

“I’ve done a lot of challenging things in music, but conducting a ballet takes the cake,” McWhorter says. The music is challenging enough (and takes everything I’ve got) and then there is the dynamic that occurs with the dance. There are certainly times when I need to make adjustments for the dancers, but, by and large, the feeling of conducting a ballet is one of collaboration; the dancers respond to our performance as much as we respond to theirs. It’s not uncommon for one of the ballerinas to come up to me prior to a show and say ‘I’d like to do my solo a little slower (or faster) tonight — just feeling it that way right now.’ I really enjoy that aspect of my job.”

For dancer Isaac Jones, now in his second year with the Eugene Ballet “the primary difference between performing with a live orchestra, compared to pre-recorded music, is the energy it gives you.” It also provides choreographic challenges as well in that “we get so used to a specific tempo or the way the pre-recorded music sounds, and we then have to readjust to the orchestra’s potentially different tempos. Certain accents or musical cues can even sound different with pre-recorded music versus a live orchestra.”

The preference for live music over pre-recorded is obvious to Jones. “A live orchestra brings freshness and excitement to a performance that pre-recorded music cannot bring,” he says. “Live music makes every show feel new. For me, live music makes me feel more in the moment and more invigorated on stage. There is definitely more opportunity for spontaneity or modification during a performance, which makes it a lot of fun for the dancers and makes us more aware during shows.” When dancers work with live music, “your movements seem to radiate out of your skin with live music,” dancer Antonio Anacan enthusiastically observes. “The message of dance shines like light through a diamond.”

From the Pit: Musician’s Perspective

Annual auditions fill orchestra vacancies with musicians who are pursuing performance careers and want a professional experience. A primary goal of ON is to place future musicians in a mentor-apprentice relationship with some of the region’s best artists such as Molly Barth (principal flute), Pius Cheung (principal percussion) and Steve Vacchi (principal bassoon).

 3_Photo_Pit_View Caption: View from the Orchestra Next Pit with Brian McWhorter, conductor. Credit Bluedot Productions.

View from the Orchestra Next pit with Brian McWhorter, conductor. Photo: Bluedot Productions.

“Seating students next to professionals gives them models for things like efficiently communicating with their section or marking their parts,” says violinist Noah Jenkins. Performing with Orchestra Next not only allows a student a professional experience, it also requires that an individual develop the responsibility that comes with being a professional musician. Unlike participation in a school ensemble, “everything depends on showing up to the first rehearsal with parts learned so that the conductor can focus everyone on performing together with the same musical intention, says Jenkins. “This personal responsibility is further amplified in a ballet setting because the dancers are depending on the orchestra being able to play their parts reliably!”

Along with professional discipline, ON provides emerging musicians another crucial element often missing from standard training. “One thing I had really missed in my school orchestra experience was getting feedback regarding my actual playing within an orchestra,” explains bassist Milo Fultz. “You can be told a hundred times what might happen and what you should do, but when you get to play next to your teacher and hear this feedback in real-time, like we do in Orchestra Next, it’s like multiple distilled lessons all happening at once; I learned more about playing within an ensemble the week I played in Orchestra Next than I had over years of schooling because of this direct and focused approach.”

Beyond its benefits to individual musicians, Jenkins says, playing with Orchestra Next allows for connecting with other musicians that “only strengthens our local musical community.”

From the Audience: Ideal Theater Experience

 Ballet mistress Jennifer Martin as the stepmother and principal dancer Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella. Photo: Antonio Anacan.

Ballet mistress Jennifer Martin as the stepmother and principal dancer Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella. Photo: Antonio Anacan.

Pre-recorded music is schizophonic — electronically separated from the original sound source. Audiences are psychoacoustically aware that something is different when live versus pre-recorded music is used in a performance. Recorded sound is processed and produced for the home living room. That same music amplified within an auditorium provides quite a different listening experience. Live music reverberates differently within the hall and to many, provides a much warmer experience. Joy Poust, a devoted EBC audience member, perceives live music to be “less blaring and distracting” than amplified music. There is also the psychological perception of a complete theatrical experience knowing that what you hear from the orchestra and see on the stage is live, and in the moment. “The visual blend of music and dance is wonderful,” says audience member Karen Warner.

For dancers, musicians and the audience, the combination of live music and dance provides the ideal theater experience. “The audience really seems to appreciate the live music,” McWhorter explains. “The dancers have said to me over and over that they dance better with the orchestra. And the musicians….well, the pros tell me that it makes them play better having students sitting next to them and some of the students have told me that the productions they’ve done with Orchestra Next are the highlight of their careers so far.  I think we’ve really hit on something here that benefits everyone. And while you didn’t ask what the benefits for me are…. I’ll just say that I couldn’t imagine a better gig.”

The next two performances of the Eugene Ballet Company with Orchestra Next are Cinderella, October 25–26 and The Nutcracker, December 19–21.

A full list of Orchestra Next principals is available online.

Tune In Tomorrow” by ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell details the founding and first performance of Orchestra Next.

Orchestra Next Crowdsourcing Trailer 2013–14 provides an overview of the ensemble’s training goals.

UO Today With Brian McWhorter. The UO associate professor of music talks about his work with Beta Collide and Orchestra Next, a training orchestra that provided live music for Eugene Ballet’s 2012 Nutcracker performances.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch. He is also a volunteer member with the Eugene Ballet Company.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    A very interesting post. And I couldn’t agree more about the benefits of live music for the ballet, for the dancers, for the audience, and at ballets like Cinderella and The Nutcracker, for the children in the audience, who can watch the orchestra warm up in the pit before the performance,all part of the experience of classical art.

Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives