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In 1966, Kenneth MacMillan (best known as the choreographer of the Romeo and Juliet danced by both Royal Ballet companies) received an invitation to become the director of Deutsch Oper Ballet in Berlin. The first piece he created for the company there was Concerto.
He chose the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's second piano concerto to choreograph. The concerto is one of Shostakovich's most accessible works, full of memorable tunes and with a deeply moving slow movement to which MacMillan created one of his beautiful, trademark pas de deux. Shostakovich, one of the most famous of Soviet composers, was known for writing sarcastic, perhaps even bitter music, but also as an excellent tunesmith. His skill with melody comes to the fore here, though in the outer movements, a hint of his darker side is heard squeezing through, slightly disrupting the happy mood.
Shostakovich wrote the concerto for his son Maxim to play with the Moscow Youth Orchestra in 1957, and it has since become one of his most popular works. It opens with a cheeky bassoon and two oboes, which announce the main theme with the piano, before the soloist launches into a whirlwind of notes including plenty of Shostakovich's characteristic martial rhythms and quirky off-beats. The whole orchestra then enters with a vigorous and uplifting rendition of the main theme. Barring occasional noisy interruptions, the bustling and jovial nature persists until the movement comes crashing to a triumphant end. If it were possible for a piece of music to grin and look thoroughly pleased with itself, this piece would!
MacMillan follows the mood and flow of the music very closely, and this bubbly score is certainly not one from which passion and angst would naturally flow. The choreography is therefore equally ebullient and energetic. This first movement is lead by a brightly clad principal couple, accompanied by three further couples and supporting group of six women. Throughout, a single dancer or small group is matched to the solo piano, whilst the remainder reflect the orchestra's contribution to the piece. The choreography makes considerable demands on all involved and requires absolute precision of movement and considerable athleticism – it was made to help sharpen the classical style of his new company in Berlin.
Unlike the first and third movements, in the slow movement there is no sign of excess or insincerity. Shostakovich resisted the temptation to write the sort of over-the-top romantic pastiche, which crops up in some of his film scores. This is simple, delicate and very beautiful music, dominated by the piano and the strings.
MacMillan is known for his exquisite pas de deux and this movement is no exception. In fact, this second movement is a regular favourite at galas and in divertissement programmes the world over. It opens with a minor-key string introduction with a dark stage. The two principals very slowly enter and start their pas de deux upon the piano entry, which gently steers the music into a major key.
MacMillan's inspiration came from seeing Lynn Seymour warming up in class and practising ports de bras (smooth arm movements) at the barre. The choreography is highly lyrical and delicate, almost as though the two principals are lovers. Once again the music is reflected perfectly in the dance. The three couples from the first movement create a frieze towards the back of the stage, quietly mirroring some of the tender movements of the 'lovers'. The music ends in the mood of tenderness tinged with sadness in which it began.
Shostakovich doesn't give the audience any time to reflect as the piano leaps head-first into the riotous final movement. Full of bars of six, seven and nine beats, the music has a lively and eccentric feel to it. It's full of fantastic orchestra effects including guitar-like plucked notes from the strings, chattering woodwind and interesting percussive playing in the piano part. The jovial cheekiness of the first movement is back, occasionally interrupted by more sinister episodes. These don't last long however as the piece gallops towards an exhilarating end.
The choreography, of course, follows suit. A brilliant, virtuoso solo for one of the female soloists opens the piece before a large corps de ballet enters and the whole company is swept along to the end of the piece. A brilliant showpiece for any company.
After the premiere in Germany in 1966, Concerto was staged for The Royal Ballet Touring Company (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) and American Ballet Theatre in 1967, and entered the Royal Ballet repertory in 1970. Despite being somewhat different in style from many of MacMillan's works, Concerto has deservedly remained in the repertory of companies around the world.
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