Joyce Theater

by Laura Diffenderfer

With performances in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, Scott Speck has inspired international acclaim as a conductor of passion, intelligence and personality. Speck was named Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in June of 2013, and has been Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet since 2010.

We sat down with Speck to discuss The Joffrey’s upcoming “Romeo & Juliet,” for which he will conduct the Joffrey Ballet Orchestra, featuring members of the Chicago Philharmonic, performing Sergei Prokofiev's sweeping score. 

What do you try to bring out in the score of “Romeo & Juliet”?

The emotion. ​I think the hallmark of all great composers is that they make us feel something. And Sergei Prokofiev could do this with very few notes, using the orchestra to evoke an almost Jungian universal response. For example, his theme for the young Juliet is so disarmingly simple and playful that it nearly bypasses our human minds completely, and goes right to reflexes. Without having to see a single step of the ballet (or read a single word of the play), Prokofiev's theme tells us exactly who Juliet is. During the famous balcony scene, the upwelling of passion, from a gut feeling to overt vocal expression, is made palpable in Prokofiev's use of instrumentation. One melody begins with an upward sweep from the low cellos and low brass (which we feel in gut, or even in our loins), then passes up through the violas and violins (chest and throat), and finally the trumpet (as we broadcast our love to the wider world). In the first depiction of the Capulet family, we sense in about 0.5 seconds how stern Juliet's father is. This music takes your breath away, but even more importantly it takes your left-brained thinking away. No analysis required. 

What is your favorite part of the composition?

​The Balcony Scene is my favorite, from a musical and dramatic point of view. I also love the very opening of the ballet, which tells us immediately that our lovers are star-crossed, and something deeply felt and tragic is about to happen. And, perhaps most of all, I love the innovative scoring of the Duke's Command. It begins with a quiet accent in a single horn, followed by other brass instruments overlapping each other, and building up to an explosive climax. It's as if the slow accumulation of events in the story leads us inexorably to catastrophe. The explosive wall of sound then suddenly vanishes, revealing ethereal strings on a slow, mournful chorale, a poignant anticipation of the tragedy to come.

What do you enjoy about working with the members of the Chicago Philharmonic that make up the Joffrey Orchestra?

​First and foremost, the Philharmonic is a community of serious artists who care deeply about making a difference in the world with their music. I can feel the deep commitment and emotion in every note they play. Secondly, but no less importantly, the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic play with a ​virtuosity that sometimes takes my breath away. It's the best of both worlds: passion and technical command. We have had a joyous experience preparing and performing Prokofiev's score. Some of our Chicago Philharmonic musicians have told me that this​ is their favorite piece in the world to ​play, whether in or out of the orchestra pit.

What do you enjoy about working with dancers?

I love the almost improvisational give-and-take that can occur between the movement and the music. It allows a live ballet performance to be much more than the sum of its parts. The dancers of the Joffrey Ballet share the profound commitment to every gesture, and thanks to the direction of Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, I sense that the dancers of this company are highly attuned to the music they embody onstage. I stand in awe of the physical, musical and emotional capabilities of these artists. Plus, it's always fun to work in an atmosphere of eternal optimism and energy.

Don’t miss your chance to see Scott Speck conducting the Joffrey Orchestra, featuring members of the Chicago Philharmonic, in The Joffrey Ballet’s “Romeo & Juliet” March 29 - April 2.