Behind the Scenes: English National Ballet’s Music Director, Gavin Sutherland

Continuing our occasional series looking at some of the supporting professions behind the scenes in dance, Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet, talks to Charlotte Kasner

You may be more familiar with the back of Gavin Sutherland’s head than with his face, for such is the lot of the orchestral conductor. Gavin began playing for local dance school ballet classes when still a student at the University of Huddersfield. By 1992 he had become pianist and staff conductor for the then Northern Ballet Theatre, begun working nationally and internationally with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia on the concert platform and in the pit, and been invited to conduct for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, New Adventures, Norwegian National Ballet, New National Ballet of Japan and South African Ballet Theatre.

Gavin’s association with English National Ballet goes back 25 years and, in June 2008, he was appointed music director. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ballet canon as well as being a champion of light music, being appointed chairman of the Light Music Society in 2009. His name can be seen on many a recording and he has conducted not only the ballet and concert repertoire, but such national treasures as the BBC Radio 4 UK Theme (an orchestral arrangement of traditional British and Irish airs played every morning on Radio 4 between November 1978 and April 2006) and an online version of Barwick Green, the signature tune to The Archers, where players were invited to upload their own recordings which were then mixed by Radio 3 sound engineers and broadcast as part of the BBC’s Light Fantastic festival. Gavin is a regular conductor with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and is principal guest conductor of the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra. Somehow, he manages to fit in many other guest appearances as well as arranging and reconstructing scores and composing original works.

Gavin SutherlandPhoto Arnaud Stephenson
Gavin Sutherland
Photo Arnaud Stephenson

Playing and conducting for ballet may not be considered as glamourous or be as generously remunerated as concert hall work, but it attracts terrific loyalty from its musicians who don’t even, conductor aside, get to see the final result. Gavin’s leadership is essential in providing the cohesion that is essential to the ENB Philharmonic’s members. Although a permanent ensemble, they are not on full-time or fixed-term contracts but meet only to play and are paid per project. Not that one would know it from their many and varied performances for workshops and ENB on stage, galas, visiting companies (where touring an in-house orchestra is prohibitively expensive) and on the concert platform where they can easily hold their own with many full-time ensembles. Gavin attributes some of their versatility to the fact that many of the orchestra’s members are highly sought after session musicians, used to rapid and accomplished sight-reading and the need for flexibility in the pressured environment of the recording studio.

Ballet pianists and conductors have little opportunity for specialist training, in spite of the fact that the flexibility required to conduct and play for ballet is far greater than that of opera, for instance. There remains no sustainable programme for ballet pianists or conductors to learn their craft and scant attention is paid to conducting for dance in music education.

Although the orchestra only play for the dancers from the dress rehearsal onwards, Gavin will have attended as many rehearsals as possible so that he can become intimately acquainted with the choreography and the needs of individual principals. Few dancers have formal musical training and, in any case, count phrases very differently to musicians. Gavin provides the bridge between the two to ensure that everyone is comfortable with tempi. Long before that, he will have been in discussions with the choreographer about musical choices and arrangements and ensured that the scores are not only available but bound in such a way as to reduce noise when pages are turned. Major changes can sometimes occur even once a work is in rehearsal and it is Gavin’s responsibility to ensure that everything begins running as smoothly as possible as soon as possible.

English National Ballet's Swan Lake in the roundPhoto ASH
English National Ballet’s Swan Lake in the round at the Royal Abert Hall,
a very rare occasion when Gavin has his back to the dancers
Photo ASH

While a work is being prepared and when it is in the repertoire, dancers will be taking daily class for which pianists need to be available. Gavin mentions that one lesson that he learned early on is that playing for a ballet school class is vastly different to playing for company class. Many ballet schools only hire a pianist for exams and it can be difficult for students to adjust to the very different sound and subtleties of live music when they have been used to the rigidities of recording. Company class in contrast, is a glue that binds performers and can be intense. As well as the physical need to warm up and keep skills honed, class is an opportunity for management to take note of individual’s health, technique and readiness for particular roles. Dancers will have their own obsessions and bugbears that they want to iron out and a class can set the tone for the whole day and evening. A good company pianist can lift the spirits and often raise a smile into the bargain as well as refining the techniques of playing, watching the dancers and adjusting to their particular needs.

While Tchaikovsky was the first symphonic composer to write specifically for ballet. He insisted that the common practice of inserting music from other sources to suit soloists – the ballet form of the suitcase aria – not apply to his own works. Despite that, this did in fact happen to Swan Lake after his death and he would not recognise the version that many now thing of as definitive. The use of symphonic works to accompany ballet remained controversial in some circles until relatively recently.

Ksenia Ovsyanick of English National Ballet as the Firebird"A pianissimo can have the audience sitting on the edge of its seats even before the curtain goes up"Photo ASH
Ksenia Ovsyanick of English National Ballet as the Firebird
“A pianissimo can have the audience sitting on the edge of its seats even before the curtain goes up”
Photo ASH

In modern times, the possibility, and in some cases financial necessity, of using recorded music provides other challenges for a music director. Sometimes, works require a combination of live and recorded music and Gavin mentioned that the ENB Philharmonic’s experience of session work and recording to click tracks makes that task easier. With a core of 47 members, the orchestra is augmented as venues and scoring dictates and space in the pit can be at a premium. Just as well that everyone gets on so well! This of course all requires plenty of advance preparation.

A long running source of conflict in ballet, and one of the reasons that some musicians dislike symphonic works being used for dance, is the differences between the tempi as marked (or more often as dictated by current tastes) and the need to adjust for the different physiques of dancers. Choreographers can also insist on certain speeds being used. The classic film The Red Shoes encapsulates this perfectly when principal dancer Vicky Page and her lover and conductor Julian Craske argue bitterly, she protesting that she cannot physically dance it at the speed he requires. On opening night, he wishes her luck and says “Dance it at any speed you like!”

Gavin’s relationship with the dancers is less personal, but the level of trust engendered between him and the dancers is also evident in his reports of cordial communications, with dancers sometimes even apologising for counting things differently. Not only will the dancers look foolish in the event of a mismatch, but they risk fatigue and injury if rushing to keep up with an inconsiderate conductor or choreographer. Conducting as if “Tchaikovsky has a bus to catch”, remarks Gavin.

Gavin and his fellow conductors watch the dancers like hawks throughout the performance in order to match music to movement. Some dancers will settle into agreed tempi, others change in each performance, requiring “conducting on the front foot!” In addition, of course, conductors have many staves of complex scores to consider and need to cue the orchestra and guide members through particularly tricky bits and sometimes conduct singers too. Conducting for the concert platform must seem like a breeze by comparison.

Many classically trained acoustic musicians (and audience members) find recorded performances very loud and Gavin discussed the fact that some of the impetus for high volumes comes from choreographers. There is an entire generation that has been brought up, not only on recorded music, but on hearing sound channelled directly into their ears via headphones which provides a very different experience to a more indirect form of sound with more or less ambient noise providing the ‘wild track’. Gavin feels that sometimes power can be equated with volume whilst there can be many different ways of being sonically powerful. He mentions the opening of The Firebird as an example, where a pianissimo can have the audience sitting on the edge of its seats even before the curtain goes up, and where even the best graphic equalisation in recordings cannot match the range of a live orchestra.

Gavin’s role as music director requires then, not just extremely specialised musical skills, but the rare ability to both approach the company’s use of music from a macro level as well as attention to the minutiae, literally down to the level of the page of the score. He needs to liaise with every department in ENB to ensure smooth performances and let’s not even mention financial constraints and management skills.

What shines through in person and on the platform, is Gavin’s lifelong passion for ballet and its music in addition to all his other concerns. Having had the privilege of being both in front of and behind his baton, I for one am immensely grateful to him for many wonderful performances and look forward to many more to come.