Brian McWhorter Photo by Bob Keefer

Keeping Score

OrchestraNext’s Brian McWhorter has re-orchestrated Eugene Ballet’s Swan Lake from a mystery recording

When Eugene Ballet performs Swan Lake Nov. 9 and 10, live music will come from OrchestraNext, a student-professional orchestra conducted by Eugene musician Brian McWhorter. 

In past Eugene Ballet productions, the music for Swan Lake has been come from a recording. When OrchestraNext took on the project, McWhorter began by carefully checking the orchestral score of Swan Lake against the recording the dancers had long used in rehearsals and performances. What he didn’t realize is just how many adjustments he would have to make.

Eugene Weekly asked him to describe that process.

Eugene Weekly: What did you do first? 

McWhorter:  So, you know, for decades now the ballet has been using this recording — and no one’s really sure about the origins of this recording. It’s not a publicly released one. It’s something that Toni [Pimble, Eugene Ballet’s co-founder and long-time artistic director] had. 

So, Swan Lake, the bootleg tape?

She had an idea that it came from one of her teachers who had a ballet company in South Africa, and they believe that they had an orchestra there who recorded it. Who knows the provenance of this? The thing is, this recording is complicated, and frankly it’s not the best recording in the world — but it was good enough. In fact, the orchestral musicians and conductor, whoever this is, they had a real style, and that really moved the music. Even though it’s not maybe the best performance, it’s like a really stylistic rendition, which I really value.

So I had to listen to this recording and at first I thought, well Swan Lake. Everyone does Swan Lake. It can’t be that hard to put the parts together, the score. And then we casually started working on it and listening to the recording and looking at the score, and I realized, oh shit, there’s a lot of differences in this score from the recording.

Is there a canonical score of Swan Lake?

Yeah, well, I’ve come to understand that it’s much more complicated than I had even thought at the time. There was the original version from the 1870s, Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake, and that’s largely not performed. I don’t know of anyone who’s actually performing that version. In fact, at the time it was not considered very good. It was his first ballet, and the criticism from the dancers and from the public was, it was an interesting thing to hear a composer like Tchaikovsky write for ballet, but it did not particularly suit anyone’s notions of dance.

It was a little heavy or something, I think was the comment — heavy with foreboding. A couple of decades later, after Tchaikovsky had died from cholera, [Marius] Petipa and [Lev] Ivanov, with the conductor of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet, Riccardo Drigo, revised the whole ballet to kind of give it more optimism at the end and a lighter feeling all the way through.

That did not just include moving movements around, but it included lots of cuts within the movements. So they came up with this version and that’s largely the version that is performed today.

This version that Toni had went a step further. So when I looked through the score while listening to the recording, there were 80 cuts — and by cuts, I mean not just things that were removed, but things that were kind of moved around. So, 80 differences. And that is gigantic!

Imagine having to construct a score with 80 cuts and then fashion the 35 or so parts. It was a nightmare. So [OrchestraNext co-founder and principal trumpet] Sarah Viens and I worked all summer. We fashioned the score up and the parts and, you know, it took a long time.

It was a bigger project than either of us had expected, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. I have to say that there’s something really appealing to me about the way that ballet music, ah, “takes a village,” I suppose, is the cliché, but it kind of applies to ballet music. It’s not the composer who is dictating the score to Swan Lake. Certainly it’s Tchaikovsky, but it really is the ballet. I don’t know how else to put it, but it seems to be a communal effort more than any other type of classical music that I’m aware of. 

So there’s a tension between classical music with a capital “C,” where the whole thing is so sacred that you don’t mess with it, and the needs of a stage performance, where you have to be very responsive to shifting problems. 

I think that is a really good way to put it. There’s no sacredness with this music. And that’s something I really value. I mean, I think it is so responsive to not just the needs of the dancers, but the needs of it, the desires of the audience, too. It is somehow less dogmatic. 

If you guys start improvising, the whole thing crashes. That must be a temptation for you. 

You bet. I mean, you know me, and I love the possibility of that. I’ll tell you: This company would roll with it. I could — probably couldn’t — make anybody fall, even if I wanted to. But I could come in late, or I could be way off on a tempo, but they find ways to do it. And then we laugh about it backstage.

This conceivably is an opportunity to improve the score. I mean, if something has been bugging Toni and the dancers and choreographers for 20 years about that recording, now is the time to fix it, right?

In fact, there’s a piece that she added, a pas de trois. The dancers need a moment to get off stage and get back on. And so she added this piece that was just incidental, an entr’acte, in between things. It gives the dancers a much-needed break, and it’s one of the most ravishingly beautiful moments of the whole score. It’s a very fluid medium, and that’s again why I value this form of orchestra with ballet.

Eugene Ballet’s Swan Lake is 7:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 9, and 2 pm Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Hult Center. More info and tickets at