Esa-Pekka Salonen + New York City Ballet = ‘world premiere’?

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Earlier this week, the New York City Ballet announced that it would produce a ‘world premiere’ ballet in its spring 2010 season featuring a score by Esa-Pekka Salonen and choreography by Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master.

As it turns out, the use of the term ‘world premiere’ in this case is highly debatable.


The new production will be set to Salonen’s Violin Concerto and will be performed by the NYCB orchestra with soloist Leila Josefowicz. Salonen will conduct the performances, which begins June 22 in New York.

As Los Angeles audiences know, Salonen’s Violin Concerto isn’t a new work. The piece was first performed with the L.A. Philharmonic in April 2009 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Josefowicz played the solo part on that occasion as well.

So why is the NYCB calling the production a ‘world premiere’? In its press literature, the company has acknowledged that Salonen’s concerto was co-commissioned by the NYCB, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the L.A. Phil, and that the piece debuted at Disney Hall.

A spokesman for the NYCB said that the term ‘world premiere’ in this case refers to the ‘ballet’ whether or not the music has been heard before.

This brings up an old question: Does the term ‘ballet’ refer to the music or the choreography? Or the two together? At its most basic level, ballet is a fusion of movement and sound. But the score can, and often does, have a life of its own, like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker.’

One could argue that the addition of Martins’ choreography to Salonen’s music will transform it into a new work of art and that therefore, the June performances qualify as a world premiere. But by the same argument, the production wouldn’t be entirely new in the strict sense of the term, just visually enhanced or embellished.

It’s quite common for performing arts groups to co-commission new work. Organizations are usually careful when it comes to marketing these pieces, using somewhat awkward terms like ‘east coast premiere’ if the piece has been performed elsewhere.

From a publicity point of view, the imprimatur of a world premiere turns a concert into an event and a must-see. It’s a term that is used perhaps too often in the classical music world -- and as such, it has become devalued.

In his review of Salonen’s Violin Concerto, Times critic Mark Swed wrote that the piece ‘is surely the most personal music Salonen has written and the latest and most eloquent evidence yet that that young composer of 20 years ago has found his language. It is the end point of his 17-year journey with the orchestra that, among other things, helped him find his voice.’

The spokesman for the NYCB declined to provide more details about the Salonen-Martins collaboration except to say that Martins has not yet begun choreographing the piece.

-- David Ng