What to Listen For: Genius at Play

Boston Ballet Staff

New York City Ballet production of "Dybbuk", Leonard Bernstein (conductor) and Jerome Robbins take a bow together, choreography by Jerome Robbins (New York)

New York City Ballet production of "Dybbuk", Leonard Bernstein (conductor) and Jerome Robbins take a bow together, choreography by Jerome Robbins (New York)

Photo credit: Martha Swope

Get your toes tapping to the tunes of Genius at Play and explore the music Jerome Robbins selected for Fancy FreeInterplay, and Glass Pieces.

Erica Cornejo, Kathleen Breen Combes, James Whiteside, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet Orchestra

Photo credit: Ernesto Galan

Erica Cornejo, Kathleen Breen Combes, James Whiteside, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet Orchestra

Photo credit: Ernesto Galan

Before Jerome Robbins could even read, he was picking out his favorite Chopin recordings to listen to on the family’s gramophone. So it’s no surprise that the music he selected for his dances throughout his legendary career is as fascinating as the choreography itself. In Genius at Play, the work of American composers spanning the 20th century provide the foundation for three high-spirited ballets. Get a preview of the music HERE while you explore what to listen for in this dynamic program.

Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free

Robbins joined the company of Ballet Theatre as a soloist in 1940 and quickly began exploring choreographic ideas of his own, particularly interested in the way an American choreographer might use American music, themes, and social dances in combination with the traditional dance vocabulary. He was offered a place on a program for a short one-act ballet and—inspired by a combination of the reality of wartime in New York, bawdy paintings by Paul Cadmus, and Balanchine’s Apollo—he began to develop the scenario for Fancy Free.

Many composers declined to collaborate (issues ranged from timing, to unfamiliarity with the jazz idiom Robbins sought, to the inadequate fee being offered for the work) before Robbins connected with Leonard Bernstein. Both men were just 25 years old at the time, Bernstein still a relative unknown, recently appointed Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and having just completed his first symphony. Their creative chemistry ignited instantly and a fascinating record of their collaboration exists in the letters that passed between Bernstein and Robbins in the mere seven months between their first meeting and the opening night of Fancy Free. In December 1943, Bernstein wrote, “I've also decided to give the piano quite a solo role. It grows more and more important all the time...and seems to be the auditory key to the ballet – since the piano gives the feeling of percussion, brazenness, hardness, brightness, honky-tonkness, clarity, and intimacy. Don't you agree?”

Three variations, each taken by a solo sailor as they attempt to win the hand of one of the two available young ladies, contain some of the most interesting rhythmic material of the piece. The first sailor’s variation is a galop, a lively dance form and relative of the can-can, replete with percussion and brass outbursts that match his aggressive showmanship. The second variation is a waltz which starts out with a marked shift in tone from the galop, lyrical strings coming to the forefront as the second sailor performs sweetly and almost shyly at first, but eventually building to virtuoso jumps timed with more brass fanfare. The third variation—the danzon—is influenced by traditional Cuban dance and full of distinctive Latin rhythms. This sailor, who clearly styles himself a ladies’ man, embodies the form (particularly in the hips) and adds his own percussive effects—clapping, snapping, and drumming on all available surfaces.

The New York Times review of the world premiere raved, “A smash hit...The music by Leonard Bernstein utilizes jazz in about the same proportion that Robbins choreography does. It is not in the least self-conscious about it, but takes it as it comes. It is a fine score, humorous, inventive and musically interesting. Indeed, the whole ballet, performance included is just exactly ten degrees north of terrific.” Robbins and Bernstein moved quickly to adapt their breakout hit into the Broadway musical On the Town, which opened just eight months later, and was just the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship and collaboration.

The Genius at Play program will open with another Bernstein piece—the overture from his operetta Candide—in honor of the centennial year he shares with Robbins. Listen for some percussive off-beat figures that don't sound entirely dissimilar from the first sailor’s galop variation in Fancy Free.

Pacific Northwest Ballet, Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces by Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet, Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces

Photo credit: Angela Sterling

Morton Gould: Interplay

Robbins had the idea for his second ballet Interplay before he found the music to suit it. According to biographer Amanda Vaill, he “envisioned a plotless suite of jazzy, jitterbug-inflected dances for a group of young people who might have strayed out of the chorus of On the Town.”

When his original musical collaborator fell through and with the deadline for the premiere fast approaching, he turned to an already-composed piece, Morton Gould’s American Concertette. Five years older than Jerome Robbins, Gould was a fellow New York native who was similarly cobbling together a creative living in the city, first as a staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall as a teen, ultimately going on to compose and conduct for radio, television, film, and Broadway.

”Concertette” was Gould’s invented diminutive of concerto, the piece featuring piano with orchestra. Four short sections were ripe for Robbins’ adaptation. The opening “With Drive and Vigor” becomes “Free Play” in Robbins hands, introducing the four men and four women of the ensemble. The “Gavotte” becomes “Horse Play“ where the delicate music underscores courtly coupled dancing (a nod to the original musical form), until interjections of brass inspire moments of more playful movement. ”Blues” becomes “Byplay” where the call and response of piano and orchestra are echoed in a sweet pas de deux. Gould’s “Very Fast, with Verve and Gusto” becomes Robbins’s closing “Team Play” where the ensemble returns with all of the requisite verve and gusto.

Philip Glass: Glass Pieces

In 1982, Robbins was in preparations to direct the 1984 American premiere of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, an opera about a monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh. According to Vaill, Robbins had been attracted to Glass’ music for some time, as its “repetitive, ritualistic structures...had the kind of complex simplicity that Jerry loved.”

In May 1983, however, Robbins’ friend and mentor George Balanchine died, leaving the future of the leadership of New York City Ballet, where Robbins had danced, choreographed, and served as Associate Artistic Director since 1949, in question. Robbins withdrew from the project, but asked whether he might use some of the music for a ballet he was working on, which would become Glass Pieces. With the opera music, he paired two pieces for chamber ensemble from the album Glassworks: “Rubric” and “Façades.

Glass’ music is often labeled minimalism, but he prefers “music with repetitive structures,” which true to form pervade this piece. The effect is hypnotic, particularly in combination with Robbins’ deployment of a massive ensemble. The flutes and soprano saxophones of ”Rubric“ drive the first movement with a relentless, unyielding energy. The second movement—“Façades“—illuminates the interplay between the pulsating violas and cellos (in the physical form of an upstage line of corps members) and the sinuous line of two soprano saxophones (in a downstage pas de deux).

The final section uses funeral music from Akhnaten, but rarely appears funereal. An incessant tribal rhythm is introduced in the drums and provides a momentum that carries through to the end of the piece. In the full opera, the chorus sings text from The Egyptian Book of the Dead throughout this section, but we see nothing but life in the full ensemble that builds to an explosive choreographic and musical finale.

Listen to the full program

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director