Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle at Lincoln Center.

Ballet music—one man’s evolution

The older I get, the smarter, wiser and more talented Verdi becomes. Funny how it works that way. When I was about 15, Verdi was basically a purveyor of corny tunes accompanied by oompah-pah. How had he managed to compose that masterly requiem, amid those silly operas? These days, I stand in awe at almost the least of those operas.

It is similar with the ballet. From a musical point of view, ballet was the bottom of the barrel, as far as I was concerned. Ballet music was the equivalent of tutus: frilly, insubstantial, kind of ridiculous. Romeo and Juliet was a masterpiece, no doubt—but I thought of that as an orchestral work, rather than something to be danced to.

Giselle, in particular, I considered a joke. Its composer, Adolphe Adam, scored a hit with “O Holy Night,” but the ballet was something else: a perfumed sleeping pill. Only later did I realize the joke was on me. Giselle, which has lived since 1841, may live to 2141 and beyond, and rightly so.

These thoughts and memories are occasioned by a visit of the Paris Opera Ballet to the Lincoln Center Festival. Attending Giselle, I appreciated the score anew. It is a piece of “program music,” in a way, helping to tell a story. It has coyness, intimacy, anxiety, pomp, gaiety, pathos and, of course, ethereality. It also has longueurs and mediocrity, to be sure—but the gold compensates for the dross.

The next day, the Parisians performed, among other ballets, a work called Suite en Blanc, whose music is taken from Lalo— Edouard Lalo, whom we know almost exclusively for his violin-and-orchestra piece Symphonie espagnole (and also, maybe, for the overture to his opera Le roi d’Ys). I was glad to get to know this music—new to my repertoire.

One reason for my prejudice against ballet music was that I so often heard it performed badly. Who among us hasn’t snickered at ballet orchestras? They are often the Appalachian League of the orchestral world, the bottom rung. Onstage, you will have surefooted dancers, and, in the pit, you will have clumsy instrumentalists.

Years ago, I asked Valery Gergiev, the conductor, “Why do people make fun of Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff?” He said, among other things, “You can perform anything in an insipid way. Even Mozart. But then the fault is yours, not the composer’s.” Exactly so. Giselle will be hopelessly la-di-da, if you play it that way.

Doing the honors for the Paris Opera Ballet was the New York City Opera Orchestra, a group that has not had much work lately, given the fortunes and misfortunes of City Opera. At worst, the orchestra played respectably, and, at best, impressively. Boléro’s rhythm was imprecise, which was a shame, because the piece is so dependent on rhythm. But not much harm was done.

Some ballet music, I still contend, is beyond hope. During its recent season here, the American Ballet Theatre put on Le Corsaire, whose score is cobbled together from five composers (including Adam). Act I is like a parody of ballet music, invented by ballet haters. But Swan Lake? Honestly, I could see and hear it once a week. Probably twice.