Versatile conductor works with both Utah Symphony and Ballet West

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Days before "Don Quixote," he made his debut at Avery Fischer Hall in New York. Right before that, he was in Portland, Ore., to conduct the music of ABBA with a tribute band — an awesome experience, he said. After his debut with Ballet West, he will fly out to Virginia for rehearsals of “The Mikado” with the Virginia Opera before flying back to Utah for “Simply Sinatra,” a Utah Symphony pops concert with singer Steve Lippia.

He finds all of the variety in his musical experience fulfilling.

“All of those things feed me as a musician, and they also inform each other — like, I conduct Broadway differently because I also conduct Brahms,” he said. “I don’t think in this day and age we can afford to be musical snobs. … Music is music and it all has its own merit and its own value and asks of us our best. Whatever I approach, I’m going to give it my all.”

From the sound of it, he was ready to give his all to the Ballet West performances.

Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, was excited about Steichen’s debut. Engaging Steichen as a guest conductor had been an easy decision.

“He’s very musically sensitive, he knows dance, he knows ballet and he’s a fine conductor,” Sklute said.

Steichen couldn’t stop talking about how thrilled he was to work with Ballet West’s music director, Terence Kern.

“Terry … is such a treasure trove. He is a wealth of information about the world of ballet,” he said. He said that despite his own experience with ballet and conducting dancing with the likes of “CATS,” he’d loved the learning experience of working with a master.

Ballet, both Steichen and Sklute explained, is particularly difficult to conduct.

“The minute the music starts, the two most pivotal people are the conductor and the stage manager and it’s paramount, the conductor’s work,” Sklute said.

Steichen said that versus something like a symphony performance with a program of multiple songs, a ballet orchestra must provide the “dramatic arch” for the entire show. Trickiest is the fact that they are accompanying dancers.

“You are accompanying physicality, which is very different from accompanying a vocal line or accompanying and instrumentalists. ... Thank goodness I had ballet experience,” Steichen said.

“Don Quixote” had four different leading casts. Steichen had spent much of the rehearsal time studying each dancer to adjust to their style. Tempos and breaks in the music must vary from dancer to dancer. That’s a challenge, Steichen said, but he was clearly fascinated and enjoying the experience.

On another side of entertainment is the “Simply Sinatra” concert.

“Oh, who doesn’t love Frank Sinatra?” Steichen said. He gushed about the crooner style.

“There’s a whole skill and style to that that these guys just have down, and Steve (Lippia) — he’s a great entertainer.”

Lippia brings with him the original orchestrations of favorite Sinatra tunes like “Come Fly With Me,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which Steichen started singing, fingers snapping, before joking that he should leave the singing to Lippia.

For the concert, the symphony has brought in a group of local saxophonists that “are the best jazzers in town,” Steichen said.

He loves the opportunity that concerts like this provide for the orchestra to kick back. He quickly added that they don't lose footing in quality in pops concerts.

Some orchestras he's worked with, Steichen said, really can't get past strictly classical programs.

"The joy of the Utah Symphony is that the players are so flexible and versatile that they can play whatever style you put in front of them,” he said. “It’s, again, one of the joys of coming and working here.”

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