Ravel – From movement makes music

An interview with conductor Maxime Pascal

By Marion Mirande 11 May 2017

© Phan tu

Ravel – From movement makes music

For the Robbins/Balanchine/Cherkaoui, Jalet ballet evening, Maxime Pascal conducts the Paris Opera Orchestra in a repertoire comprised entirely of music by Ravel. A close collaborator of the Ballets Russes for whom he wrote Daphnis et Chloé, and for whom La Valse was initially intended, Maurice Ravel has remained a major source of inspiration for choreographers around the world since the beginning of the 20th century. We asked Pascal, the musical director of the ensemble Le Balcon, to discuss the interplay between the French composer and dance and the particularities that apply to the ballet orchestra.

Can you present the pieces by Maurice Ravel that make up this evening of dance?

Les Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were inspired by the Austrian waltzes of Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert. They foreshadow La Valse which was written much later, and unlike those preceding it, was composed specifically for a ballet libretto. It is an astonishing piece, abstract by form and without specifically defined outlines. It transports us into an Austrian ballroom where a thick fog gradually dissipates to reveal dancers, all prisoners of a musical crescendo, who succumb to exhaustion. You could compare this piece to a march towards death, rather like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Boléro. The latter is the product of a unique musical process. It is one great, non-narrative progression, and, as such, can be interpreted in numerous ways: increasing desire or pain, or the arrival of death… Opposite these three scores, the Concerto in G Major is the exception, because at the outset, nothing connects it to dance.


In what way are these scores choreographic—aside the obvious fact that most have dance as a subject?

From the String Quartet to his final productions, Ravel’s art evokes the movement of sounds and their wave-like progression through space. More particularly, his music evokes the notion of a loop-like motion inherent to the mechanical movement of production line which in his day, were becoming the industrial norm in the United States. This repetition of gestures leads to the idea of a whirlwind, often present in his works. But for Ravel, this musical maelstrom is inspired more than anything else by dance. Among his many sources of inspiration—Russian and Spanish composers, American music, science, the discovery of acoustics—the primary influence remains dance, even when he is not composing a ballet. With him everything—or almost everything—is choreographic by nature.

Has your understanding of Ravel’s music evolved thanks to these choreographic interpretations?

Enormously! Generally speaking, it’s the conductor who chooses the phrasing and tempo at which the opera or symphony orchestra plays. And yet at the orchestra’s first rehearsal with the dancers, those parameters have already been set by the choreographer or the Ballet Master. It is they who are the real conductors. I try to feel what they themselves felt when they first came into contact with the music and how they made it theirs. Although I may well have a very specific and personal view as to how to interpret a given composer, I try to pass on the choreographer’s vision to the orchestra. It is always very interesting to have a score interpreted by other artists as it allows us to review our own interpretation.

Ludmila Pagliero et Karl Paquette dans La Valse, Balanchine, Palais Garnier, 2017
Ludmila Pagliero et Karl Paquette dans La Valse, Balanchine, Palais Garnier, 2017 © Laurent Philippe / OnP

Isn’t it frustrating for a conductor not to have total control over the orchestra?

What counts above all is the dancers' movements I have to be on their wavelength. In my view, the most important is not gratuitous synchronisation between the dancers and the musicians but rather, that everyone converges towards a common narration in the same tempo. When everyone can coexist in this great communal movement, expressiveness is born. The control of the orchestra is linked to the choreography. Of course, I allow myself to maintain control or rescind it. But I always bear in mind the need to stick to the story unfolding on stage. Even so, it is the conductor’s responsibility to communicate to the dancers the energy and strength they need that comes from the music.

Does this alliance between the stage and the orchestra pit differ for ballet and opera?

It is often said that the singers follow the conductor and vice versa. But it’s not true. The conductor must ensure that the orchestra plays what the singers feel. They need to breathe together. The same applies to the dancers. The magic only works when you manage to breathe and leap with them. This requires a common artistic awareness which we reach by watching and discussing, thus allowing us to grasp what each participant needs.


So, are you really getting to know the Opera’s dancers with whom you’ve already worked?

I worked with the Orchestra and Ballet on two occasions during the 2015/2016 season, for the season’s opening Gala and for the Millepied /Robbins/Balanchine evening. I also accompanied the Ballet on their recent tour to Japan, without the Orchestra this time. It’s a fairly new experience for me to work with dancers. Thanks to them, I’m learning a great deal. As I said before, these collaborative efforts have enabled me to perceive the time and space of the music differently, to watch it take form and acquire a visual dimension. And that is particularly exciting. 

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