Atlanta Ballet performs 'Hamlet' to the score of Philip Glass

Atlanta Ballet's Hamlet runs April 11-13 at the Cobb Energy Center


  • Charlie McCullers
  • TO BALLET OR NOT: Atlanta Ballet's performance of Shakespeare's classic Hamlet will take on an otherworldly style

This weekend, the Atlanta Ballet takes on the tragic story of Hamlet set to the otherworldly, brooding music of Philip Glass at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre from April 11-13. We caught up with music director and conductor of the Pennsylvania Ballet Beatrice Jona Affron, who will be guest-conducting the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra for the performances, to ask about Glass's music, the possibility of dancing in the pit, and the worrisome prospect of getting lost in the composer's famous repetitions.

I don't know that much about the score for Hamlet other than it comprises different things composed by Philip Glass. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
The choreographer Stephen Mills very cleverly put together a variety of different works by Philip Glass to form what I think is a cohesive group of pieces. Act II is made up entirely of Glass's first violin concerto, so of course those movements go very well together. But in the first half, Mills uses five different pieces all composed within an 11-year period. They tell the story very well, I think. There's a very long tradition of putting full-length ballets together using pieces by one composer that were not necessarily written to be heard on the same night. There are many other examples of this, and I think this is a particularly successful one.

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How is conducting Glass's music different from conducting, say, a score by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev?
One of the things that makes it so interesting and fulfilling is that when music is repetitive, every large or small change becomes quite dramatic. The interplay between repetition and change in Glass happens at a different rate than Tchaikovsky. I think that is something that people really respond to in his music, and it's something I certainly respond to. Every one of those changes has a huge reward and creates opportunity for expression.

When I listen to Glass's music, I find it very meditative and it's easy just to get lost. Is that a danger for a conductor, getting lost in his music?
I don't think that has happened to me, but I'm going to knock on wood. That's less a challenge in these pieces than music he wrote earlier with much less harmonic movement than the pieces in Hamlet.

I was curious to read in your bio that you studied with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano when you were a student at New England Conservatory. It's probably a hard thing to distill or condense, but can you articulate what you learned from him?
He actually gave a lot of insight into the idea of understanding the structure of a piece, trying to delve into how the thing is organized. He took me out of my comfort zone. I'm very grateful to him for that. I was a kind of shy conductor at the time, not really sure how to use my body or how to communicate through gesture. He made me conduct big marches from Verdi operas to get me out of that comfort zone. I'm hugely grateful to him for that and a myriad of lessons.

You mentioned learning to use your body and communicating through gesture, very dance-like terms. Do you ever think of conducting as a form of dance?
Some people have said my style is sort of "dancey." I don't know. But I would be surprised if 20 years of watching dancers hasn't influenced me in some way. When I'm conducting I don't really think, "How graceful is this?" I'm really thinking about communicating the intent.

You led the national tour of Les Enfants Terribles with Philip Glass in 1997. I'm sure you must have some interesting Glass stories, things that happened on tour, things he said that gave you some insight into his character or how he thinks as an artist.
It was wonderful because the composer was there at every performance, performing along with us. I'd never really had that experience before. It was wonderful to see how invested he was in the piece. He said, "This is the best way for me to get inside of my work. So often when I compose a piece and give it to a symphony orchestra, I have to let go of it." I thought that was a wonderful attitude ... Before each performance the other musicians and I would line up and make an entrance into the pit and then as we left we would line up and exit. It was a choreographed entrance and exit, which is quite unusual for musicians. As we were leaving every night, he would tell me how long the performance had been. He would whisper "93 minutes and 45 seconds." "92 minutes and 25 seconds." Every night, I would get this little Philip report behind me whispered in my ear. He was just fascinated with time and duration and math and numbers. I always got a big kick out of getting his report at the end of the evening.

He's a composer who's had an affinity with dance since the very beginning.
I really can understand why choreographers are so drawn to his music. It has a kind of clarity that appeals to not just dancers, but a lot of visual artists, too. Certainly, Chuck Close; they have a very famous relationship. But I've spoken to numerous studio artists, painters and sculptors, I asked them what kind of music they like to listen to. Many, many of them have said Philip Glass. I think he's an artist's artist.

Hamlet runs April 11-13. Cobb Energy Center. 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 770-916-2800. cobbenergycentre.com.

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