Tempo may seem to be everything for ballet conductor John Lanchbery. But it is the phrasing, he says, that really counts.
Take his swift negotiation of events immediately after his arrival in Los Angeles by way of London. In just two hours he has whisked himself from airport to hotel, taken a swim, had a shower, sipped a drink, left for a dinner date and--in between--managed an interview.
Like his podium style, Lanchbery's offstage life is full of cadence, its latest example to be heard with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl as he accompanies Fernando Bujones and Friends tonight and Saturday and Roberta Peters July 25 and 26.
The phone rings in his poolside hotel room and, in the briefest exchange, he says to the party on the other end, "I'll be there in 10 minutes, honey. Just finishing a little conversation now."
Without dropping a beat, he turns and asks in his Americanized British, "Not bad for 63, what?"
Lanchbery, principal conductor at the Royal Ballet for 12 years and music director at American Ballet Theatre from 1978 to 1980, also takes the rigors of transcontinental travel in graceful stride--grabbing winks in midflight, "and anywhere, on command."
But when it comes to his labor of love, collaborating with such starry eminences as Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Anthony Dowell and Natalia Makarova, the maestro is no sleeping beauty. His orchestral ministrations have earned him a hero's share of accolades.
He may not actually leap off the bandstand, but it is in large part his musical thrust that enables a dancer to seemingly hang in the air or devour space or fly with the wind --so keen is Lanchbery's sense of the kinetic moment. Indeed, he has been credited with bringing as big a dramatic share to "Giselle" as the famous protagonists he accompanies.
"Inspiration works both ways," he explains. "I try to inspire the dancers, and hope, in turn, to be inspired by them. The '77 'Giselle' with Kirkland and Baryshnikov is one I shall never forget. Nor the Makarova-Dowell performance.
"There is something about dancers that draws me. They're so lovely to look at, of course. But it's their selfless discipline and grueling hard work I admire so. Once I stayed in the theater watching Rudi (Nureyev) go over and over a dance phrase. He just couldn't get it right. The longer he tried the worse it got and he just swore a blue streak.
"I gently suggested he simplify the steps but he waved me aside, saying 'Understand, Jack, I have to challenge myself.' "
A kindred spirit in terms of energy level, Lanchbery spends a huge amount of time observing piano rehearsals. It's there, he says, that a conductor learns how a given dancer thinks, what he needs and the solutions to his individual problems. Typically, after a six-hour session, the conductor will advise choreographers on changes that could benefit the ballet by way of the dancers.
"Sometimes the mere fact that you're watching them makes these hard-working creatures feel protected and secure," he adds.
"But when, for instance, they insist on a slower tempo, I resort to a little dishonesty . . . nodding in agreement but then using my own judgment at the moment of truth.
"The trick is to maintain the pulse but adjust it to allow phrasing fluctuations. Poor things, they don't have the musical language to articulate what they mean. It's my job to interpret."
But upholding the standard applies differently, depending on the music. If it's Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, say, "Le Sacre du Printemps," Lanchbery vows he would never compromise--nor would anyone ask him to. In the case of Minkus, composer of the rinky-tink "Bayadere," it's open season.
"Here we can muck around a bit," he says. "The test question is: Does it make you feel like dancing? My theory is, the less good the music, the more liberties we can take. Too many conductors, not knowing what crimes they're commiting, give in to dancers. I try to honor my obligations."
And in the nick of time.