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June 23, 2020
What is your favorite ballet to conduct?

"Undoubtedly one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th Century is Igor Stravinsky's Apollo.

By Ormsby Wilkins

Undoubtedly one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th Century is Apollon Musagète by Igor Stravinsky. However, it is probably less appreciated than the big three ballets written at an earlier stage of Stravinsky’s career: Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. I have had occasion recently to delve more deeply into this work. 

Firstly, I have been fortunate enough to have conducted performances of Apollo with three different companies over the last two years, including ones with American Ballet Theatre during its 2019 Fall Season at the Koch Theater in New York. 

Secondly, I recently did an interview for an online arts journal and as I knew that this interview would be an extensive look into the score, as well as its close relationship to the inspired choreography of George Balanchine, I did some extra reading and to my delight turned up all sorts of interesting facts and stories surrounding the original creation of the ballet.

Stella Abrera (Terpsichore), Melanie Hamrick (Calliope), Joo Won Ahn (Apollo) and Katherine Williams (Polyhymnia) in <i>Apollo</i>. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
Stella Abrera (Terpsichore), Melanie Hamrick (Calliope), Joo Won Ahn (Apollo) and Katherine Williams (Polyhymnia) in Apollo. © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

I did know that the first performance, commissioned by The Library of Congress, had taken place in Washington, D.C. in April of 1928, though of course that choreography was not by Balanchine but by Adolph Bolm, now completely lost and forgotten. What I did not know was that in some early sketches, Stravinsky had planned to include harp and piano in the instrumentation, perhaps representing Apollo’s lyre, but in the end composed it for a string orchestra (the solo violin makes a glorious stand-in for the lyre!).  It was only two months later, in June 1928, when the Balanchine version (now with the simplified title Apollo) was danced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Serge Lifar as Apollo. 

Ormsby Wilkins joined ABT as Music Director in 2005.

Learn more about Apollo