Conducting ballet is totally different from anything else a conductor does, said Terence Kern, who should know. Kern has conducted the Utah Chamber Orchestra that accompanies Ballet West for 28 years while continuing a freelance conducting career that takes him around the globe.
Kern is moving to emeritus status, but will continue to conduct some ballets for the Utah company as a search for his successor gets under way.
Conducting ballet is different because it requires dealing with the needs of individual human bodies. "You have to accept that and provide the dancers with good music to dance to," he said. "You go into the studio with the dancers, you rehearse with them. Only then do you make up your mind about tempi and all of that. It's a long process, and a lot of conductors are not willing to do it."
Kern's gift for helping dancers through music developed gradually. He began his career as an opera conductor and knew little about ballet when he was asked to fill in for an ailing conductor at a performance of "Coppélia" at London Festival Ballet. Kern said he sight-read the score and got through the experience, but "it wasn't love at first sight."
London Festival Ballet kept asking for him, and Kern kept learning how to help dancers with subtle cues and adjustments to tempo that helped them shine onstage. Along the way, he realized he liked conducting ballet, which led to a position as London Festival Ballet's music director in 1972.
Later, he continued freelance conducting around the world, including working for Ballet West. The company hired him as its permanent music director and principal conductor in 1988. He has made Salt Lake City his home base for 28 years and honed Utah Chamber Orchestra into a fine ballet orchestra during that time.
New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, in a 2010 article reporting on a national "Nutcracker" tour, referred to Kern as "one of the most expert ballet conductors in America."
"Terry is an incredible ballet conductor," said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. "He understands dance, understands music and understands everything that brings the two together. He had an incredible international history, and his gifts to Ballet West have been innumerable over the years."
One of the beneficiaries of Kern's gift for mentorship is Ballet West associate conductor Jared Oaks, who came to the company in 2008 as a rehearsal accompanist, assistant conductor and music librarian.
"One of the most attractive things about my job was the chance to work with such an experienced and talented conductor," Oaks said. "Terry has conducted so many ballets that he's never really starting at ground zero. While many of us are learning things for the first time, Terry enters with a wealth of experience."
Oaks said that as much as he appreciates the music and dance knowledge Kern has shared, he's just as grateful for Kern's kindness and friendship.
"Terry has been careful to give me the conducting opportunities and advice that I needed, and he's never been overbearing about it," Oaks said. "Because of his wise mentorship, I've been able to get so much more out of my job."
Among favorite moments at Ballet West, Kern lists the chance to conduct the Glenn Tetley version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with Tetley (a prominent English choreographer) in the audience.
"It was terribly difficult for the orchestra," Kern said. "But, afterward, Glenn said it was a great production and sounded great. That's a good compliment coming from somebody like him."
Kern will continue to make his home in Salt Lake City and accept ballet projects elsewhere. He intends to slow his pace, though only a bit. "I hope I will find a little more time for golf, but I doubt it," he said with a laugh.
Ballet West's search for a new music director will commence next season. Sklute said a slate of conductors from around the nation will each conduct a program for Ballet West and be evaluated by a search committee that will include orchestra members, dancers and Kern.
"I would hope that we can finish the search by the end of next season, but that depends on what works out," Sklute said. "I want to make sure we do this right."
Sklute said he and Kern share a great love of music and ballet and have had "marvelous fun" talking about the art forms they adore.
"I have learned so much from him," Sklute said. "I'm so grateful for everything he has brought to Ballet West during my time here."
About Terence Kern
Terence Kern was born in Wales and graduated from University of Wales. He studied piano at Guildhall School of Music in London, where he won the Conductors Prize. He began his career as staff conductor for Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now English National Opera).
1972 • Became music director for London Festival Ballet.
1980 • Became music director for Scottish Ballet and later conducted around the world as a freelance conductor.
1988 • After guesting as a conductor at Ballet West, Kern was hired as music director and principal conductor.
May 2012 • After 28 years at Ballet West, Kern transitioned to his new position as music director emeritus.