Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, with Cooper and Figlin, works to establish rapport with NCDT


The CSO, led by guest conductor Grant Cooper, and North Carolina Dance Theatre in Residence conclude their Week Four performance. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

For the second and final time this season, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the North Carolina Dance Theatre in residence will bring ballet to the Amphitheater stage at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Guest conductor Grant Cooper and pianist Arkadiy Figlin will join the CSO for an evening of well-known, rhythmically driving works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Johann Strauss Jr. and Beethoven.

Cooper said collaboration in any art form hinges around a single word: trust.

“With trust, you can be in the moment more gladly and enjoy that moment,” he said. “If we’re in an environment like Chautauqua, where we can trust those people around us, then we behave in different ways. We let ourselves be freer.”

Over the last several years that Cooper has conducted the CSO in ballet performances, the sense of trust has grown. Cooper attends dance rehearsals to better understand how the dance is evolving. Because the dance is built from a single music recording and its fixed tempo, attending rehearsals also helps Cooper determine which moments will afford orchestra players more flexibility.

This careful collaboration is especially important when a soloist is added to the equation. Cooper said the orchestra’s primary task will be to listen to Figlin and follow his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.

Figlin has been playing with the School of Dance for 20 years. He also is a pianist at the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. Figlin said there is more pressure on a player performing as a soloist with an orchestra for the ballet.

“It’s more challenging than just being a soloist with the orchestra, because you have to be extremely organized and extremely disciplined,” he said. “It’s a lot more responsibility as well, because any mistake which might occur is going to affect not just you but 40 dancers onstage.”

Figlin is looking forward to the challenges and pleasures of playing Rachmaninoff, his favorite composer.

“Every pianist, if they’re not dead, just enjoys playing Rachmaninoff,” he said.

The rhapsody is considered by many to be Rachmaninoff’s fifth piano concerto.

Figlin described the piece as traditional, because of its compositional form, and revolutionary at the same time, because of the story surrounding the piece.

The work is based on a theme from Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin. Paganini’s astonishing virtuosity caused some to believe he had made a pact with the devil. Rachmaninoff may have alluded to this idea over the rhapsody’s 24 variations, which incorporate the “Dies Irae” melody from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.

Cooper said the piece is very rhythmic, with each variation gathering energy and suggesting motion. It has tranquil moments and a huge turning point at just the right place in the music.

“The music can stand alone, and yet, with the addition of dance, a whole new dimension is revealed,” he said. “Another artist’s viewpoint of how one might experience this music is revealed to us. Then we, as listeners and observers, can fold that into our own experiences.”

The CSO will also perform “July’s Delight,” Cooper’s own arrangement of Strauss marches, waltzes and polkas. The CSO first performed the piece earlier this season, on July 12.

“I couldn’t have hoped for a better reception,” Cooper said. “The music by itself is great — it sells itself. If it had just been a concert performance, I think the audience would’ve enjoyed it, but of course, the dimension of the ballet is only going to enhance an audience’s perception of what it is they’re experiencing.”

The music of “July’s Delight” has been slightly modified to accommodate costume changes and balance different types of dances. With these changes and in its second performance, Cooper expects the music will have a nicer flow.

Saturday’s ballet also features the scherzo movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125. Beethoven plays with the rhythm of the dance, subdividing accents to change the scherzo from standard triple-time to what sounds like quadruple-time, Cooper said.

“He’s actually a very modern composer, in that regard,” he said. “There’s much more florid impulse, much less emphasis on the elegance and formality of a minuet and much more emphasis on excitement and energy.”

Cooper said it’s both a blessing and a warning to play such familiar literature, because it is easy for instrumentalists to slip into a comfortable interpretation, which may not be the interpretation the dancers are used to.

“The warning of these three pieces is that the orchestra needs to be ready for anything, and that just comes back to trust,” he said. “That word, trust, I think, is a very important part of not just what happens between the CSO and the ballet but also what happens at Chautauqua.”

Cooper will conduct the CSO again this season at 8:15 p.m. Aug. 20 in a concert featuring cellist Julie Albers and works by Byron Adams, Edward Elgar and Brahms.