Matthew Rowe
Photo: Matthew Rowe | © Frances Marshall

An interview with principal conductor Matthew Rowe

7 May 2024

A narrative steeped in music

It is the last chapter of a musical fairy tale. Matthew Rowe will soon step down as chief conductor of Dutch Ballet Orchestra and music director of Dutch National Ballet. Having served 12 years in this dual role and acting as a bridge between music and ballet, Matthew has decided to move on and embark on other adventures in music. In June, he will be conducting the Stravinsky Fairy Tales ballet programme – featuring the captivating Firebird and The Fairy’s Kiss – before taking on his new role as principal guest conductor.

Author: Lune Visser

Igor Stravinsky: an innovator of music and an influential composer. What was his impact on the world of ballet?

Matthew Rowe: “Stravinsky’s impact was huge: he unleashed nothing short of a revolution. Until the end of the nineteenth century, ballet music – with the exception of brilliant compositions by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov – tended to be regarded as subservient to the choreography. Rather than having merit as a standalone composition, ballet music just served as a backdrop for the movements of the dancers and was evaluated for its ability to support the visual elements of the ballet. But then along came Stravinsky, who had studied under Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He showed the world that ballet music could be a driving force in exploring complex themes and emotions beyond traditional narrative storytelling.”

How did Stravinsky get into composing ballet music?

“It was basically because Sergei Diaghilev, a famous impresario, took a chance on him. He knew Stravinsky from a previous, smaller project, and decided to commission him – Stravinsky was only 27 years old at the time and relatively unknown as a composer – for a new project. And what a project it was: Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose the music for an entirely new ballet for Les Ballet Russes, his Paris-based ballet company, based on the Russian folk tale of “The Firebird”. Other composers had refused the commission for various reasons before him, but Stravinsky embraced the challenge and ultimately went on to create the ground-breaking score that would revolutionize ballet music and launch his career. He had never composed anything of significance for ballet before, but what he ended up creating was absolutely incredible.”

Matthew Rowe

“At 27 years old, Stravinsky had never composed anything of significance for ballet before, but what he ended up creating was absolutely incredible”

What made his composition so special?

“The difference between this composition and earlier ballet music was that Stravinsky’s score supports and enhances the storytelling. Each musical motif and theme depicts the events and emotions of the fairy tale, creating an evocative narrative steeped in music. And the composition is filled with wonderfully intricate details: the sound of the horn when Prince Ivan enters as a reflection of his noble character, or the subtle fluttering of melodies as the firebird flaps its wings. This is how the composition gives the dancers the tools they need to reach emotional depth in their role.”

Igor Stravinsky
Photo: Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky wrote The Fairy’s Kiss (Le Baiser de la Fée) much later in his career. How did this composition come about?

“Stravinsky was commissioned by Ida Rubenstein, a Russian ballerina in Diaghilev’s Les Ballet Russes. She had founded her own company and asked Stravinsky to compose a ballet inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ice Maiden” for the season 1928/29. The year 1928 held special significance for Stravinsky because it marked the 35th anniversary of the death of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom he deeply admired. To pay tribute to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky weaved elements of Tchaikovsky’s lesser known piano music into the fabric of his score, blending them seamlessly with his own composition to create a cohesive and unified musical narrative: it’s a perfect fusion between Tchaikovsky’s lyrical romanticism and Stravinsky’s rhythmic and harmonic figures. Even to the point where it’s hard for the listener – and ultimately even for Stravinsky himself – to tell who composed what, which was exactly what Stravinsky had envisioned.”

And now you’ll be performing his music. How do you prepare for something like that?

“For me, it always starts with a deep dive into the score. I study every little detail and nuance that’s been committed to paper. That process helps me to gradually gain an understanding of what the music’s like and how I think Stravinsky meant for it to sound. It’s a slow, but very satisfying process. I have a lot of questions, but I always find the answers in the music. That’s a good thing too, because obviously I can’t just give Stravinsky a call.”

“Seeing the dancers rehearse in the studio with the ballet pianists is also very helpful to me. I work closely with them to fine-tune the music and bring it into the closest possible harmony with the choreography. And I rehearse with just the orchestra. This is when I delve into the musical elements of the ballet with the musicians. And then, in the run-up to the premiere, we bring everything together: choreography, music, sets, costumes, lighting, wigs and make-up. That’s always the most exciting time!”

What did you like most about your time and role here?

“My role here really gave me the opportunity to work with a host of extraordinary artists and performers – choreographers, composers, dancers and musicians – on a recurring basis and over a longer period of time. That has been a great and incredibly inspiring privilege. A collaboration allows you to explore the artistic process and the creative relationship at a much deeper level if it’s not just a one-off. What I also love to see is how highly live musical accompaniment is valued at this company, and by that I mean treasured. Orchestras are under so much pressure these days, so it’s wonderful that the importance of live music is recognised here. The fact that our dancers have the chance to perform to live music, with 60, 70 or sometimes even 80 musicians in the pit, is something very special that should be cherished.”

Matthew Rowe

“The fact that our dancers have the chance to perform to live music, with musicians in the pit, is something very special that should be cherished”

Now that you’re leaving us, you’re going to be embarking on new adventures. What will the future look like for you?

“I love working with dance and dancers. I’m endlessly fascinated by the interaction between dance and music, so I’ll won’t stop exploring how to bring these two artistic languages even closer together. Looking ahead, my schedule is filled with dance productions, both here at Dutch National Ballet and at companies outside the Netherlands. But I’ve also made room for a number of exciting non-ballet projects. Now that I’ll have more time, I hope to be conducting some opera again too! Who knows what the future will hold, but that I’d welcome wholeheartedly.”