Fantastic adventure: Koen Kessels
Q&A: Koen Kessels8:00, 17th August 2017
The Belgian conductor is currently music director of the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. Katy Wright finds out more about his career and why good ballet scores often don’t make it into concert halls
How did you start conducting ballet?
I trained as a concert pianist and repetiteur for opera, and I was assistant conductor for the Antwerp Opera when I was asked to conduct the yearly ballet production. It was Prokofiev’s Cinderella, and that went rather well. I continued working with the Ballet of Flanders and travelled with them quite a lot – to the Edinburgh Festival, Belfast and Shanghai, for example. Before long, I was invited to the Paris Opéra-Ballet (where I gave over 300 performances), and my reputation began to grow from there.
How did you find making the transition to conducting for ballet?
Opera and ballet seem to be quite similar, as you’re working with people on stage, whether they’re singers or dancers. I like working in the studio with the dancers, especially with new repertoire; it’s about finding a way to ensure they can be their best on stage. Conducting ballet is more ‘practical’ than opera in a way, but that doesn’t mean that musical phrasing or dynamics are limited. Collaborating with choreographers and dancers is a fantastic adventure.
Do you work closely with choreographers while preparing a score?
If it’s an existing production, I reconstruct the development from the creation and work closely with the ballet masters. Working on Cinderella with David Bintley, Symphonic Dances with Liam Scarlett or Psyche with Alexei Ratmansky, was very collaborative and very close to understanding the score. I try to read what they need and they try to understand how I see the music.
You work a lot with contemporary composers. Why do you find dance such a good place for new music?
Working in an unknown world is a huge investment for the choreographer, but if it’s possible, I believe it benefits everyone involved. In the performing arts, the visual aspect can bring the public much closer to understanding the music. Programming new music in concerts is always a challenge but within the context of a triple bill, the public tends to get more involved. We also have the opportunity of several performances on the first outing.
What makes a really good ballet score?
It’s rather rare to find the combination of good ballet score, good music score, and good ballet: it’s down to the alchemy between choreographer and composer in the creative process. Daphnis et Chloé is perhaps the best score ever, but it’s non successful as a ballet score. When different choreographers get inspired by and are tempted to reinterpret the music, we reach the top level composition. That’s what happens with the ‘big three’: Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. They developed their language by studying scores made by ‘real’ ballet composers like Minkus, Drigo, Pugni and Adam. Their music is not first-rate but functions incredibly well for ballet. A composer who listens too much to the demands of the choreographer without knowing the ballet vocabulary will mostly end up with a compromised score, or one which only suits the particular choreographer. This was the case with Cranko/Britten’s Pagodas, for example. It’s a tricky balance to find, and the ‘big three’, they managed it. Good ballet scores aren’t often the ones that come to the concert platform.
How does conducting ballet inform your other work, such as the HERMESensemble and Inspiratum?
It’s rather separate, but being involved with contemporary music on small and large scale creates an inspirational circle. HERMESensemble is a laboratory where we experiment with new music, crossing borders of genres, art and media disciplines: we develop mixed-media projects with sound/video technology and live electronics, initiate community projects, and instruct young composers. Inspiratum presents concerts for small audiences in special settings and locations. I am also still engaged in education as president of the artistic board of the Antwerp Royal Conservatoire. I love to stay involved in developing young talents: they are the musicians of the future.
What have you got coming up over the next few months?
Sir Peter Wright’s Coppelia with Birmingham Royal Ballet, Wayne MacGregor’s Woolf Works on tour with the Royal Ballet in Brisbane, a MacMillan celebration, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a new work by Twyla Tharp with the Royal Ballet, The Nutcracker at Christmas with BRB and a new Nutcracker with Kader Belarbi in Toulouse. Meanwhile, I’m working on a new programme of Iranian composers and Iranian 12th-century poetry (Hafez) with HERMESensemble.