It has been a year since Koen Kessels was appointed Music Director of the Royal Ballet. The conductor, who studied at the Antwerp Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music, had first conducted the Company in The Nutcracker in 2008, and two years later was appointed Music Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, a position he still holds.
But despite making a significant impact within both companies (of which more later), a career in ballet had never been on the cards when Kessels first left music college. ‘I’m trained as a pianist,’ he told me in his office at the Royal Opera House. ‘I wanted to work in the theatre, so I went to the opera house at Antwerp, first as a répétiteur, then as assistant conductor. I was given the opportunity to conduct Prokofiev’s Cinderella (which incidentally is much more difficult to conduct than Romeo). After that, I did a few other ballets, but in my head I was still meant to be an opera conductor.’
Few musicians actually set out to be ballet conductors. Perhaps part of the reason for this is the lack of training on offer – particularly compared to what’s available for opera conductors – which means that ballet conducting can remain very much a mysterious art to the uninitiated. Yet many who encounter it become hooked. For Kessels, the turning point was when he started conducting at Paris Opera Ballet. ‘I stopped seeing it as a step up to opera and started to admire the discipline of the dancers,’ says Kessels. ‘They work like hell to reach these athletic performances, then at 45 it’s all over.’
Like Barry Wordsworth, his predecessor at the Royal Ballet, Kessels believes that, in the right circumstances, ballet can be as musically satisfying as opera – or perhaps even more so. ‘It’s the difference between following and accompanying,’ he says. ‘If you follow a singer or a dancer, you’re always too late or too early; if you accompany them, you can push them, you take time over certain phrases, you can create that extra space. And that means that you can be creative as a musician.’ When you’re performing for a ballet company, of course, there’s the added advantage of being able to ‘play out’ as an orchestra. ‘In opera, balance in relation with the singer is the key, but in ballet that doesn’t exist,’ says Kessels. ‘Finally, you can play triple fortissimo!’
Kessels isn’t immune to the often-negative attitudes surrounding ballet, though. He contrasts an encounter with conductor Mariss Jansons, who ‘has the most incredible admiration for conducting ballet’, with the stereotype alluded to by many of his colleagues: ‘If that person’s a ballet conductor, he must be bad.’ He also acknowledges the running joke in ballet circles that ‘a ballet conductor has two tempi - too fast and too slow'. And he’s continually frustrated that, in ballet, ‘the critics never mention you’.
But that hasn’t stopped him from throwing himself into his new role at the Royal Ballet. He has ‘amazing dancers’ at his disposal, who allow him to work with them on an extremely high level, musically. And the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is ‘very alive’, he says. ‘They react to what you do – it’s a luxury for me to work with this kind of orchestra.’ Similarly, the players seem to enjoy playing for Kessels. ‘Both he and Barry Wordsworth have a similar approach to rehearsing,’ says Paul Kimber, Section Principal Bass. ‘But most of their flexibility as conductors, and their interactions with dancers and choreographers, goes over my head. Literally.’
Is there a real danger that the pit musicians can feel disconnected from what’s happening on stage because they can’t see it? Kessels believes that, so long as a composer writes symphonically, the orchestra can simply enjoy the challenges of performing the music, as any orchestra in the concert hall would do. ‘When you’re working with a composer who understands what an orchestra can do, it’s fantastic,’ he says, citing Giselle - ‘the most superb ballet music you can imagine for the 19th century’ - as well as the major ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
But, he says, today’s composers are also worth championing. He mentions the new Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Tempest, from Director and choreographer David Bintley and composer Sally Beamish. ‘They have been working together for two-and-a-half years,’ he says. ‘It’s like the partnership between Hofmannsthal and Strauss – if you don’t allow the time to build in the failures of the process, it’s not going to work.’
The Royal Ballet has been at the forefront of creating new work for dance, most recently with full-length ballets from Christopher Wheeldon (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale), Wayne McGregor (Woolf Works) and Liam Scarlett (Frankenstein), as well as shorter pieces including McGregor’s piece to a score commissioned from Steve Reich, to be premiered this November - but these are projects that began before Kessels assumed his Music Directorship. His hope is to steer further new projects in a rather different direction, albeit with a retained focus on contemporary (and specifically commissioned) scores.
‘There are composers who could write for ballet, but choreographers may not know about them,’ he says, mentioning as an example Julian Anderson who he met recently at a conference at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. ‘Julian said he’d love to write for ballet but that it’s difficult to convince a choreographer to trust you. As Music Director, I hope to be able to influence things; I can act as the go-between.’
In his continuing role as Artistic Director of HERMESensemble, Kessels has in the past collaborated with such composers as Abrahamsen, Benjamin, Henderickx, Hosokawa and Saariaho (he also conducted the latter’s opera L’amour de loin in Antwerp) and is convinced that working with contemporary composers is ‘the main purpose of any company’. Choreographers may benefit from introductions to unfamiliar names, Kessels suggests: ‘The amazing quality and versatility of our orchestra waits to be challenged further by good compositions and orchestrations, and our great sound department knows very well how to use amplification and live electronics within the possibilities and limits of the Royal Opera House.' Kessels also hopes to build on the relationships he’s already forged with Royal Ballet choreographers Wheeldon, McGregor and Scarlett, so that he can be directly involved in new projects from the beginning: ‘If the choreographer trusts the conductor, he brings them in early. They can work together on deciding things like tempi from the outset.’
Kessels would love to see a post-graduate course for ballet composers implemented at the Guildhall, just as there already is for opera composers (in association with the Royal Opera House). And he’s hopeful that more opportunities will be created for would-be ballet conductors. There is already one ballet conductor, Matthew Scott Rogers, enrolled on the ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme; and Jonathan Lo, a BBC Performing Arts Fellow with Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Rambert dance company in 2015, is now Conducting Fellow of the Birmingham Royal Ballet: ‘We put him in charge of three Nutcrackers,’ Kessels remembers. ‘His training was in conducting symphonic music, but proved he could conduct ballet.’ Kessels’s hope is to roll out the current Fellowship to an international level, incorporating the Royal Ballet companies in both London and Birmingham and also Rambert. Fundraising would be the next step, he says, but he’s confident that launching such a programme would attract musicians with enormous potential for conducting ballet.
Meanwhile, Kessels maintains a busy freelance career in addition to his Royal Ballet duties. ‘I still love doing opera,’ he admits. ‘Because of my training, I understand what a singer needs. With a dancer, it’s more complicated.’ He recalls conducting the Royal Ballet at a gala at Buckingham Palace, where he was asked to conduct a few operatic arias as well. ‘People were surprised,’ he admits, laughing. ‘They said afterwards, “But you’re a very good opera conductor!”’
The 2016/17 Royal Ballet Season, launching with 'La fille mal gardée', is now open. Koen Kessels makes his first appearance conducting the Wayne McGregor triple bill in November. For more information, visit roh.org.uk