Allan Stephenson on ballet and conducting

Allan Stephenson on ballet and conducting

This week, respected composer, conductor and cellist Allan Stephenson will be on the podium conducting Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Camille at Artscape. In this interview, long-time friend and colleague Daniel Neal (cellist and librarian of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra) gets Allan to share how his career in South Africa started over 40 years ago and how he landed up in the beautiful world of ballet.

Allan, to me you are an established pillar of Cape Town musical society, but many of the younger readers probably don’t know how or why you got to South Africa.  Can you give us the story of how you and Christine got to Cape Town in the first place, and why you chose to stay?

AS: While studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music I worked as a free-lance cellist and frequently played in the Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) where my teacher was the principal cellist. In 1972, the former principal guest conductor of the then Cape Town Symphony Orchestra (CTSO), Hugo Rignold, asked him if he could find a likely candidate for the sub-principal cello position in Cape Town. Although I was already playing for the RLPO, the orchestra’s management did tell me I need more experience so I should go somewhere and come back to them in a few years time.  So the CTSO job was a great way to achieve that. I went down to London in November 1972, played my audition and landed in South Africa on 13 January 1973. I was very quickly roped into teaching part-time at the South African College of Music (SACM) for a number of 2nd-year and part-time music students. When the cello lecturer died suddenly, I had to take over all the students and with the orchestra job as well, I couldn’t manage it all. So, I suggested that they hire my fiancée at the time to teach the part-timers. To this they agreed and in early July 1973, my fiancée Chris arrived and a few days later we married! The CTSO schedule at the time was quite flexible and left me time for composing and so here was an ideal life for both of us.

How did you get interested in conducting, as well as composing?  Have you ever felt a conflict in how to portion your allocated time?

AS: My interest in conducting came from my early youth orchestra days when I had to play pieces at what I felt to be, wrong tempi. (This is a hobby horse of mine in the orchestral repertoire). While at college, I took over a chamber orchestra and we turned it into a repertoire orchestra. In my later career, there has been no real conflict between composing, playing and conducting. So I guess I’m lucky.

How did you get to meet Veronica Paeper, with whom you first collaborated with for Tales of Hoffman?  Was it chance that led you to work with ballet, or was it a long term ambition?

AS: My first contact with the ballet company in Cape Town was actually with their production of Don Quixote. Capab only had the orchestral parts and a piano version and despite a world-wide search no-one appeared to have a full score. So I put the parts into a score and produced a performing version which we still use today. Then Veronica Paeper, the resident choreographer, had an idea of converting Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann into a ballet and I was asked to assemble the score. This marked the beginning of our collaborations. Terence Kern happened to be the conductor for this production, but he couldn’t do the last performance so I was asked to do it. And so began my ballet conducting career in Cape Town.

You’ve created stage works for singers and for dancers.  How would you describe the difference in your methodology?  Please describe the difference in libretti for these mediums.

AS: The big difference between ballet and opera is essentially one of time. In opera, I can make an aria or chorus as long as I feel necessary. With ballet the choreographer specifies a certain number of minutes for each section…….in some ways like a film score. They way it worked with Veronica, she found the passages from the opera she needed and then told me what kind of music she needed for the rest. So for Camille for instance, anything that is not in La traviata is my own writing.

Of the three major ballets you have scored (The Tales of Hoffman, Camille and Sylvia in Hollywood), Camille seems to have been the most successful.  Why do you think it has proved so popular?

AS:  I think quite simply because the music from Verdi’s opera La traviata is more popular than Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. 

What is “different” in conducting a ballet, as opposed to an opera, and a symphony concert?

AS: Unlike an orchestral concert where a live performance allows quite a lot of freedom, conducting ballet is a little like accompanying 20 piano soloists in a concerto. Each one has their ideal tempo and one cannot vary it very much.

You recently conducted Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda, too; describe the pros and cons of conducting another composer’s work to conducting one of your own.

AS: I imagine the biggest difference is that a classical repertoire ballet has certain traditions which you have to learn and be able to reproduce. With one’s own work, you are actually creating the tradition. This is a lot of fun and artistically very fulfilling.

You’ve been involved in ballet productions in South Africa for over 25 years (I think, maybe longer…).  As a composer and conductor, what is your opinion of the direction ballet has taken in that time, and of its future, especially as regards new South African ballets?

AS: Sadly, like most cultural exploits in the 21st century, ballet does not feature very high on the list of priorities when one looks at the way governments think. That is, that it does not need funding. The truth is that all musically associated cultures will always need some form of financial support. Box office receipts are only a small fraction of what is needed to balance the books. So with shrinking ballet companies and fewer orchestras, there are simply no funds to pay for new ballets. Private patronage is probably the only way that new works will be written or created in the future. Curiously, we are back to the way of the 18th century!

Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Camille is on at Artscape from 2 to 12 May 2013. Bookings at Computicket or Dial-a-Seat on 021 421 7695.

Published 28 April 2013
Interview by Daniel Neal

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