A ballet and chamber music collaboration

This week, we’re joining forces with James Sewell Ballet for a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings. We’ll once again be performing the work unconducted, with violinist Maureen Nelson leading the ensemble. Maureen shared some of her thoughts as the final rehearsals approached.

By Maureen Nelson

The Mendelssohn Octet collaboration is in full swing! We met on Tuesday and had a long rehearsal at the Cowles Center, just the musicians. This Octet is always a challenge; virtuosic writing, so many textures, so many moving parts! Just take for example the Scherzo, with its spinning wheels. This movement can easily become burdened and heavy from the technical challenges of the writing, but needs to sound fleet and light as a feather. We were all incredibly curious to see this music manifested in dance! I believe we we sculpted our interpretation with dancers in mind. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to perform the Bach Chaconne with José Limón choreography. As a musician, I have a certain way of feeling the beats, and the phrases: strong beats, weak beats, long lines, short vertical lines. It was fascinating to me, as I worked with the dancer, to “deconstruct” a piece that is so familiar to me. By moving along and watching the dancer, I was creating lines and arcs in Bach’s music which never would have occurred to me.

As the Chaconne featured a solo violin and a solo dancer, I knew that Mendelssohn’s Octet would be quite a different experience. As an octet, we are our own dance troupe, in a sense. We need to bring all the parts together and work as a single entity. Yesterday we rehearsed for the first time in the O’Shaughnessy Theater. As we went though a couple of passages before rehearsing with he dancers, James Sewell came up to me with a big grin on his face and said he noticed that we were “dancing” as we played! We chose to perform the Octet standing up, which automatically allows more freedom for expression in our bodies.

I watched the dancers stretching and warming up on stage, and waited with anticipation for James to give us the signal to start. Finally, the lights dimmed and the dancers, eight of them, took their places. We began…

I would love to write more about their performance, but I realize…my part is so complicated (I’m playing first violin, a dastardly difficult part!) that I’m so busy either looking at my own music, or being attentive to my colleagues, that I can only sneak occasional peeks at the dancers! What a shame!

But! Today we have another rehearsal, and then the dress rehearsal. Everyone seems happy with our tempos, which was something we were concerned about and came prepared to be flexible. A few of my colleague have to good fortune to be facing out, towards the audience, towards the dancers, and have reported to me that the choreography is stunning and beautiful.