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Ballet West auditioned several highly qualified conductors after longtime music director Terence Kern retired in 2012, but artistic director Adam Sklute said Tara Simoncic's energy elevated her above the rest.
"I really liked her sound and what she was bringing [to the Ballet West Orchestra,]" Sklute said of Simoncic, whom he recently hired as the company's music director. "I felt an electricity" when she was on the Capitol Theatre podium.
Simoncic, who just turned 44, made a favorable impression in a half-dozen appearances over those three seasons, including productions of "Bolero," "The Lottery" and "The Rite of Spring."
"We brought her back again and again when her schedule permitted, and the relationship sort of grew," Sklute said.
Simoncic will conduct four of Ballet West's five productions each season. (The fifth, "Innovations," is staged at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and does not involve the full orchestra.) The Ballet West Orchestra includes a core group of about 40 of the Wasatch Front's top free-lance musicians; the number varies with each production. For example, personnel manager Kenny Hodges noted that 39 musicians are in the pit for each performance of "The Nutcracker," but because of scheduling conflicts during the long and busy "Nutcracker" season, almost 90 musicians have participated over the ballet's run.
In addition to conducting the orchestra, Simoncic oversees a staff that includes two part-time rehearsal pianists and "my awesome associate conductor, Jared Oaks," she said.
Simoncic, originally from Stockton, Calif., comes from a musical family: Her father, Max, is a composer and pianist whose works she performs frequently; her mother, Carole, is a flutist. Simoncic began her training as a trumpeter and earned a bachelor's degree in trumpet performance from the New England Conservatory of Music, but "I was always kind of yearning to conduct." She put together small ensembles as an undergraduate, then earned a master's in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University and a professional studies diploma, also in orchestral conducting, from the Manhattan School of Music. Her résumé includes appearances conducting opera, ballet and symphonic music across the United States and Europe; she currently is associate conductor of the Greenwich Symphony in Connecticut and longtime conductor of "The Nutcracker" at Louisville Ballet in Kentucky. "Ballet West is the most important job for me, but it does allow me to work with other groups," she said.
It's relatively unusual for a conductor to work in three musical disciplines, as she does. "It is a niche, I would say, especially in America where opera companies and ballet are separate," she said. "In Europe, they're part of the same theater, so it's really common there. …
"It's a challenge, but I feel lucky to be able to do all three."
Simoncic enjoys cycling, running and yoga, but said she most cherishes downtime with her fiancé, opera stage director Pier Francesco Maestrini, and their two cats. (The couple recently worked together for the first time on a production of "The Barber of Seville" in Slovenia.) Because she'll be spending a lot more time in Salt Lake City including four Ballet West productions, auditions and assorted meetings she hopes to have a home here eventually. "I love Salt Lake City," she said. "Every time I've been there, I've had such a great experience."
The feeling appears to be mutual.
"We were all very taken with her competence, her friendly nature and her understanding of the musical score," said Hodges, a percussionist whose history with Ballet West dates to 1976. "She's very expressive on the podium, and I feel she really draws [emotion] out of our players. … She's going to be really good for the ballet and the Ballet West Orchestra. Her dedication and preparation to each of the ballets we've worked on with her have been exceptional."
Flutist Sally Humphreys, another longtime member of the Ballet West Orchestra, said she also has been impressed with Simoncic's preparation and efficiency qualities that are especially important, she said, given the brief rehearsal window preceding each production.
Sklute said the dancers hold Simoncic in high regard as well.
"She spends a lot of time getting to know what they need on an individual basis," he said, noting that the conductor knows the choreography, as well as the music, inside-out, "and this is the mark of a great ballet conductor."
Land of Sweets
Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" wraps up its run.
When • Saturday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, noon
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29-$87; balletwest.org
Also • There will be a Sugar Plum Party onstage after Saturday's matinee; $10 gets you cookies, punch and a visit with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her friends.