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Terez Mertes

Sight and Sound

March 31, 2011 at 9:36 PM


There are those who only attend the ballet and can’t imagine enjoying themselves at the symphony, because there are no dancers to watch, no costumes and pretty scenery.

I am not one of them. I am a former ballet dancer and must confess that watching ballet dancers rouses something raw in me. Call it a yearning, call it envy or simply a revival of that old competitive nature. But I’m trying to be an enlightened adult and face my shadow self. Besides, right across the street from the San Francisco Symphony is the War Memorial Opera House, venue of the world class San Francisco Ballet. I’ve seen it there every time I’ve gone to the symphony in the past five years, and something in me always whispers, “coward.”

So I went to the ballet. To quell my insecurity I chose a program that featured all Tchaikovsky. And in the end, I enjoyed myself. There was Balanchine’s “Themes and Variations,” Kenneth MacMillan’s “Winter Dreams,” but far and away my favorite was Helgi Tomasson’s “Trio,” set to  Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” (string sextet in D-minor, op 70). From the instant the violin struck that urgent first chord I was in love. It was the most perfect marriage of music and dance and my only regret was that I didn’t get to see the musicians, particularly the first violinists who performed that irresistible top melody voice.

 “Winter Dreams” utilized vignettes of Tchaikovsky’s music, including “Valse Sentimentale,” which is one of my favorite little violin tidbits. I’m almost inclined to say, however, that watching the dance leached the music of its power. Granted, the dancers were sublime, truly world-class. But I felt a spasm of longing to be across the street right then, in familiar turf, where it was all about music, in my beloved little subscription seat (I did not like the space in the 3500-seat Opera Hall—I felt like a budgie in one of those pet shop cages, jammed in with a hundred other chattering, clawing budgies).

Back home, I’ve been listening to my recording of “Souvenir de Florence” a lot, and the first movement still has me starry-eyed. In searching for a YouTube link to attach to this blog, I came upon the following performance. My initial reaction was that it was an amateur performance, perhaps students on a college stage. No requisite black-and-white attire, and the stage backdrop is pretty funky-looking. The audio sound flawed, too much treble, rather tinny, but once the musicians start playing, the rest just fell away as extraneous stuff. There are likely more professional recordings I can find on YouTube if I searched around, but my point is this: here is art, trimmed of the extraneous. This performance, particularly that of first violinist Stefan Jackiw, captured that glorious musicality of the piece, the dance-ness of it, for lack of a better word. It sent my heart soaring. Check it out. (Note that it has been split into two YouTube clips; both links are here.)

I researched the performers; they are part of Korea-based Ensemble Ditto. I was delighted to discover that Stefan Jackiw is an up-and-coming young artist making a name in the international circuit. Googling Ensemble Ditto led me to a charming Korean promotional video that is also worth a

I like this feeling, galvanized over an arts performance, caught up in the palpable energy and artistry the musicians created. I want to shout out to the rest of the world, “Here! There’s some cool classical music here, come check it out, come meet new faces you haven’t seen before.” How good it feels to support the arts in this way. Then I go back to thinking about the ballet performance I saw and yes, it was beautiful, the dancers were sublime. But ballet seems locked in its own little citadel. The company creates its own publicity for selected dancers, but only what they can control. The performance is carefully orchestrated to reveal only what they want you to see. Beauty, illusion, perfection—the heavy curtains and hidden wings hide the rest. God forbid you should ever try and seek out one of the artists, chat with them.

Well, that’s the ballet world. And this is the classical music world. Both very similar and yet, oh, how different. But it’s not hard to decide which one will get my subscription dollars next season.


© 2011 Terez Rose

From Emily Liz
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 3:16 AM

One of the most moving experiences I've ever had was watching a solo dancer perform onstage with the Amelia Piano Trio. Details of a program here. He danced to Janaeck's violin sonata while the musicians were onstage. Ever since I've wondered...why don't we do more of this? Do our two worlds really have to be so partitioned off from one another? In one interview I remember reading Anthea Kreston observing how thrilled she was to see that the concert brought together the dance audience and the chamber music audience. It's a union I hope to see again, and if not with the Amelias, with another daring group.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 12:43 PM

Nothing but props to professional dancers.  They are the hardest working, and the least paid, of all the classical artists. 

Have you read Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans yet?  It is on my to-read list...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 1:14 PM

 Anne - so which artist are you sympathizing with, the pit musician or the dancer? Because the musicians who perform for a ballet orchestra - that's got to be hard, being expected to play so sublimely but never being seen or fully acknowledged by the audience. Sure hope they like their conductor, because he's their only conduit to applause or approbation. (But no worries there, because all musicians love all conductors, right? : )  )

Apollo's Angels looks good, but I can't get it cheap enough, so it's on my "get from the library" list.


Emily - I love that you loved the performance you saw. I'd really be interested in hearing what everyone else's reaction was on the performance (if you can find any review, please do put the link here!) I think if there'd been a dancer on the stage during the "Souvenir de Florence" performance I linked here, I would have felt distracted. My guess is that you have to find the right music/dance combination.

This is probably an ironic time to mention that I love, LOVE to take ballet classes that have live accompaniment. It can make such a difference; the execution of these steps becomes not just barre work, but dance. And I love the energy interplay between accompanist and dancer, during the adagio and the period where the dancers are stretching. So, the piano and dance, yes, love it. Drumming and dance, yes, LOVE it. But violin and dancer side by side? Whew, tough call as to where my eye would go. (Two high maintenance instruments of art, both claiming center stage!)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 1:36 PM

 Started thinking that I came across as too negative toward the ballet world, so I posted a link here to one of the most affecting performances I've ever seen (well, on YouTube). San Francisco Ballet's Yuan Yuan Tan with Desmond Richardson in "Othello." Really a must-watch. Contemporary dramatic ballet at its finest.

From Emily Liz
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 2:57 PM

 Mentioned briefly here, although a different program than what I saw -

It actually wasn't distracting at all. I kept my eyes on the single dancer, while being able to see the violinist in my peripheral vision.

But I think the impact would absolutely depend on the number of dancers, the skill of the dancers, the choreography, the repertoire...lots of things. But it can work, and I think the two worlds should, when possible, at least try to integrate a bit more.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 4:18 PM

With luck and care, a violinist can have a 40-50 + year career.

A ballet dancer?  Even with Apollo smiling, not so long.


From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 1, 2011 at 4:29 PM

Also, you wrote a blog that had all of those fabulous photos of you in your dancing days. Wouldn't it be nice to pull those up again!  I tried doing the v.c googling thing, but no luck...


From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 2, 2011 at 2:10 PM

 Sorry for the hiccup in not replying there - yesterday was a blur.

Anne, here's the link to my other ballet-related blog:

And hoo boy, are you right about a dancer's short career span. I am working on a new writing project, returning to this dance world, and that's a big part of the story. Two ballet dancers, sisters, in the same company (um, can you say competition?) and the impasses the two come up against one season. The younger one, a promising soloist, is diagnosed with a medical condition that might end her career right then and there, while the older sister, left behind in the corps for nine years, is now forced to consider "what comes next" now that she's past her prime (she's 28). Tough world to compete in, and there are soooooooo many young, talented dancers with incredible technique these days, clamoring to have their chance, at a time where performing arts opportunities are becoming increasingly rare (as the musicians/artists here at can attest to).

Emily, I'm off to read your link now...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 2, 2011 at 3:18 PM

 Emily, that program sounds really wonderful! Sounds like they found that perfect blend of music and dance. And now that I think of it, I performed in a concert one season where we had live music onstage, including a singer, and it was a lot of tun. It wasn't purely classical though; I think it was more of a jazz combo, and then there was a concert pianist, and the soprano had been classically trained. The best part about it was this sense of collaboration with the local talent in the community. 

Been a long time since I've thought of that concert! (And, interestingly, one of the pics on my other blog, linked above, is taken from that concert. Wonder if I can embed it in the reply section here...)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 2, 2011 at 6:09 PM

Terez - I have been away in Europe so am late to this discussion.  I am in awe of great dancers and their skills but do not particularly appreciate ballet.  Probably a lacuna on my part, since the skills required are on a par with those of a very good musician.  But then, I do not particularly go for opera either.  It is wonderful that you have the experience of doing both instrumental music and dance and love both (not to mention your wonderful skills as a writer). 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 2, 2011 at 8:19 PM

Europe, lucky you, Tom! I have all sorts of eager digressions on your comments, but alas, my house has just gotten taken over by six twelve-year old boys: it's my son's birthday party, which will  include a movie and a sleepover, so that pretty much sums up the rest of MY day (not to mention my sanity).

Thanks for popping in to comment, and better reply tomorrow! (And ditto goes for anyone else who much post a comment between now and then.)

And anyone who wants join me and a half-dozen excitable 12-yr-olds to see the movie (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Part II), come on over, we leave in thirty minutes.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 3, 2011 at 8:22 PM

I hope everyone had a good time!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM

The kids had a ball, the parents are wrecked with fatigue. : /

Tom, I liked hearing your thoughts on the different performing arts. I, too, am not drawn to opera, which is interesting as I so enjoy singing myself. But I'd so much rather just hear the classical music without words and overwrought drama unfolding before me. Similarly, I'm not that keen on live stage productions. The acting, while very satisfactory, just feels so... dunno. Contrived. I'm a big fan of films, and would always pick a good movie over a play. I love the feeling of escape a movie gives me. And classical music does the same.

And as for ballet versus the symphony, I can't help but wonder how I'd feel about the equation if I hadn't spent the past five years immersed in classical music, learning to play the violin, having a subscription to the SFS, and participating in discussions here at these past 5 years. I think all of it has refined my palate. I think classical music is more intellectual than ballet, and what appealed to me in earlier years (ballet alone) has stretched out and grown hungry for more. In my classical music tastes as well. 6 years ago, it was only the Romantics I was drawn to. I would have said I had no desire to hear 20th century music and now it really appeals to me. (Okay, mostly the early 20th century stuff, the melodic stuff, but hey. I'm learning to listen and appreciate the newer stuff. Particularly if it isn't twelve-tone-based.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 5, 2011 at 12:49 PM

Your different likes and dislikes are interesting.  I go to live theater 3-4 times per week and am a great fan.  I also like choral music, even though I don't care for opera.  Go figure.  It all has no rhyme or reason as far as I can see, although some things, like 20th century music, are an acquired taste.  Depends on what you are open to trying, probably. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 5, 2011 at 9:14 PM

 > I go to live theater 3-4 times per week and am a great fan. 

!!! : 0

Holy cow, that's a lot.

I'm a fitness junkie and go to the gym and yoga/dance studio and the local hiking trails 3-4 times a week. I have a hunch, however, that you have more fun during your thrice-weekly (how does one say four times as an adjective?) forays than I do. : )


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