Emil de Cou on Conducting the “Best Ballet Orchestra in the Country”

PNB's Emil de Cou conducting the National Symphony Orchestra (Photo: © Scott Suchman)

“What I love about ballet is the collaboration between the dancers and the music,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet’s conductor, Emil de Cou, who has built his conducting career on an eclectic mix of musical activities.

For the past decade, he’s been associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.. He has also worked for years with NASA, conducting musical collaborations with the space agency for educational concerts and even art shows, as he will next week at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C..

It was de Cou who put together and performed the score for a live accompaniment to The Wizard of Oz, the original movie score having been tossed, and he conducted for a while for opera impresario Sarah Caldwell. His ballet work goes back over a quarter century, as conductor for American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet plus guest stints for a dozen other ballet companies worldwide.

Why would he choose to come to Seattle, to PNB?

“It’s the best ballet orchestra in the country,” he says without hesitation.”I’ve conducted all the ballet orchestras. There’s a love and commitment, a focus and care to what the PNB players do, and they take great pride in it. Stewart (Kershaw, previous PNB conductor) did great work with this orchestra. It’s a happy family, which was so before I got here. This is an orchestra which has grown together.”

De Cou will maintain ties with the National Symphony, keeping his summer work with it at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, and continuing to consult for NASA. He is also the conductor for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

After the final performance of PNB’s Love Stories, Sunday, November 13, he flew overnight to Washington for a rehearsal and concert with the National Symphony on Monday, and to Florida Tuesday for performances with Suzanne Farrell’s company, before returning here November 20 for Nutcracker rehearsals. De Cou will conduct seventeen of the thirty-six Nutcracker performances which begin today, sharing the others with conductor Allan Dameron.

Emil de Cou (Photo: © Scott Suchman)

Talking about the art of ballet conducting, he says, “The conductor and the company members have to work together extremely closely. I have to learn the steps (that they are dancing), but it’s most important to get to know the people dancing. It’s so personal. Singers use part of their bodies as their instrument, but in dance, the entire body is the instrument. The conductor holds a great deal of power. To be a good collaborator, the dancers have to trust you implicitly to look out for their interests; to help them if they are in trouble, to support them in their exuberance. It’s the intermingling that takes time.”

De Cou spends a great deal of time with the dancers. “I want to change the décor of my office to a dancers’ art gallery,” he says. “I have so much respect and love for them, what they sacrifice to do this. They are smart, hardworking people and I want to give them as much as I can.”

While he has a few rehearsals with the orchestra, there is only one with the dancers before a production, and that is only for the opening night cast. The other casts stand in the wings to absorb it. “They’ve had hours and weeks of piano rehearsals, but when they hear the orchestra it has to have an impact. The piano is a percussion instrument and suddenly they have an orchestra with long singing phrases. It’s such a short time for them to hear and adjust to the sound of the orchestra, to dance to the color of the sound. It gives them the license to be in the music for a longer time.”

De Cou defies pigeonholing as a conductor, deliberately. In times past, he says, orchestras played symphony concerts, ballet, and opera in the pit and it was good for everyone. Not anymore, most places (though the musicians of Seattle Symphony do play for Seattle Opera.). What excites him is the spontaneity of working with performers on stage: the costumes, the lighting, the scenery, the movement, the acting, the human element.

Although he will continue to commute to the East Coast for gigs there, de Cou’s permanent home is in the Bay area. He has just found an apartment here where he will be spending more of his time.

“This,” he says, “is one of the happpiest places I’ve worked. People should realize this is such a wonderful company. This is not an accident. There’s been not just hard work, but good work. Ballet can be a harsh environment, with competitiveness and a lack of kindness. David (Brown, executive director) and Peter (Boal, artistic director) treat everyone well, and with respect. People laugh, they enjoy what they are doing. This isn’t so everywhere. I’ve worked places where the atmosphere is humorless. The first thing I noticed here was that people are allowed to laugh.”