Convergence of Live Music & Dance
A Conversation with Sofia Hirsch, Solo violinist & Ballet Vermont Music Director
After four years with Farm to Ballet (F2B), I still thought that the impetus for live music had come from Chatch. It didn’t? It came from Sofia? I’d better talk with her and get the story, so I met with Sofia in her lovely Burlington home.
By way of background, Sofia started studying the violin at age four and played with the Vermont Youth Orchestra in the 1980s. Her string quartet competed nationally at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, Junior Division. After college and various life diversions, Sofia returned to her violin and in 2000 joined the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. In 2008 she started playing with the Burlington Chamber Orchestra as a founding member. She’s performed with the Darmouth Handel Society and the Dartmouth Symphony, the Middlebury Opera and the Middlebury Bach Festival, and the Northern Third Piano Quartet.
Sofia is a multifaceted artist. She studied jazz and modern dance in high school, and West African/Cuban in college. She danced with the Lyric Theatre Company’s West Side Story in 2009 and A Chorus Line in 2011. But something was missing in her dance world, so she started ballet seven years ago, first in Middlebury where she lived, and continued at Spotlight with Chatch for the last five years, taking classes with dancers who comprised the company, year by year.
Sofia had noticed that Chatch liked violin music, that he would play a Mendelssohn violin concerto or Vivaldi’s concerto The Four Seasons before class. So they got to talking. She loved Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. “Why use a recording for The Four Seasons when I could play it live at each show? And I was super excited to play for my classmates,” said Sofia.
That first season live music was played for The Four Seasons only with Sofia on violin and Jacob Oblak on keyboard.
Sofia had run her own chamber music group and was used to contacting musicians for gigs, so for F2B’s second season in 2016 she asked her musician friends about joining the show as a string sextet and “they all said yes!” So a string sextet played the Vivaldi music the second and third F2B seasons.
The sextet is comprised of Sofia on solo violin, first violin, second violin, viola, cello, and bass. Each instrument is wired with a microphone for sound and a seventh person handles the sound board. In other words, the music comes through six cords into the sound board, where it is mixed for balance and clarity as it is played to the audience from that mixed source.
Sofia commented, “Vivaldi’s concerto The Four Seasons is one of the top ten in the repertoire of violin concertos. It’s virtuosic music at the highest level.”
For the first three seasons, the musicians played only the Vivaldi music, which dancers used for about half the performance. Recorded, full orchestral music by Tchaikovsky, Minkus, Prokofiev, and other composers was used for the other dances.
The fourth season saw the transition to all live music. F2B made a major commitment when it had all the non-Vivaldi music transcribed from full symphony down to just six stringed instruments. “This was a tremendous task to reduce full symphonic scoring to scoring for a string sextet,” said Sofia, “and we were blessed to have Michael Close nearby in Montpelier for the job. He is a cellist and a composer, and he transcribed the music for six strings and preserved the characterization. What resulted was very virtuosic scoring, especially for the viola.”
Sofia explained that characterization is central to ballet music and is represented by themes or instruments, and that Michael captured this quality. She also mentioned that Chatch has a great ear for music and has captured its beauty, drama, playfulness, and grandeur in his choreography.
And what is Sofia’s favorite piece of music? “Literally every piece is my favorite. Chatch chose the best of the best from each ballet score.”
Looking back over her life, Sofia noted, “It was always dance versus violin, either/or. I had to be devoted to either one or the other. Never did the two co-exist. Now they co-exist comfortably with F2B. Now I can have both integrated as a major focus.”
In the last three seasons, musicians have come from all over the northeast and they are all professionals, ranging from young to seasoned. Each season there are new musicians as well as returning musicians from previous seasons, but all of them understand what’s so special about this production.
Live music is an important draw for audiences. A brief survey done in 2017 indicated that 81.8% of audience members found the live music to be an important part of the F2B experience. Even though live music is expensive––a major part of the budget––it is valuable to attendees and has been a major commitment and priority on the part of F2B from the beginning.
Incidentally, very seldom does a dance company start with live music. This is standard that most dance companies work towards, sometimes for years, before achieving. But Farm to Ballet started its first season with half the music live and reached the point of fully live music its fourth season.
Eileen Maddocks returned to ballet when she retired and studies with Chatch Pregger. She performed with Farm to Ballet for four seasons. She is also a writer with her own publishing company that specializes in religious history.