How did you get your start in music and conducting?

EdC: I’m the only person I know of all my colleagues who went into music because of loving ballet music. Growing up in Orange County where there was no orchestra, the only orchestra nearby was LA, which I couldn’t get to. So I went to the movie theater and saw Fantasia, then got the record from my high school library, and wanted to hear more of the music. “Dance of the Hours” was very funny, and the Nutcracker Suite – I wanted to hear what the whole thing sounded like; and Rite of Spring, I wanted to hear the whole ballet which I had never heard before and thought, what else did Stravinsky write? So I heard Firebird and then Petrushka, then heard the other Tchaikovsky ballets. But it was mostly from seeing that movie and being excited about movement – not just ballet, but movement, cinema, storytelling, and music all in one, as opposed to just abstract music. 

Orchestra Principal Conductor Emil de Cou with Concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim and choreographer William Forsythe in rehearsal for New Suite.

I played French horn in high school so I could be in marching band. It got me into orchestra, and then I played professionally in Vienna to pay for school. I started late and had a lot of catching up to do. It was the right thing for me, but if somebody came to me at the age of 15 and wanted to b. You really have to want it more than anything else and be willing to sacrifice lots of things that other people take for granted, like where you live or how you live. You have to go where the position is, and it’s just a fluke that I wound up in Seattle but I could have wound up in Minot.

Could you speak about the special experiences required to conduct ballet?

EdC: I went to USC, and then the Music Academy of Vienna, and when you study conducting you’re studying all the basic parts of harmony analysis, history, and then starting to conduct a small orchestra so you learn proper gestures and how to be clear, and the repertoire they teach you – standard symphonic repertoire – does not usually include anything outside of that…you’re not going to get much opera, hardly any ballet, no musical theater, and no pops music; so you kind of have to pick that up on your own. You never know in the conducting profession (since there are so few jobs) what job will open up, so you have to be ready to take any of them; if you know nothing about the other disciplines in the arts then it makes you less versatile as a possible employee. 

Maestro de Cou conducting at McCaw Hall.

When I was working with the National Symphony (at the Kennedy Center as associate conductor), I conducted mostly education and pops shows, which I like very much, and summer shows and outreach shows. But you go to school and they teach you how to conduct a Mahler symphony which is an hour and fifteen minutes long. It’s like, ‘No! You’re going to be conducting An American in Paris and a lot of Bernstein and Gershwin and that sort of thing.’ Which is actually not that easy to conduct…and you know, ballet repertoire is also not easy. It’s harder than accompanying a singer because the singer you can hear and the orchestra can hear, so even if the conductor’s off they tend to go [along]. In ballet, of course, the dancers don’t make a sound and the orchestra can’t see them…so keeping things coordinated in the same way – because dancers phrase the same way a singer will phrase, or a pianist or violinist will phrase – sometimes they’ll phrase ahead, sometimes they’ll pull back, depending on their personality. 

You have to know the dancer but you also have to know the steps and you have to know how they’re executed – if somebody’s on or if they’re having trouble you have to be able to see that. Our professional dancers can cover so it doesn’t look [amiss] to the audience, but you spend years here working with them, you can see it’s not exactly the way it was. And so my job as well as having the orchestra sound as good as they can play, is being there for the dancers and accompanying them, letting them phrase, but also helping them if they need a little more time, or need things to be sped up in a way we didn’t rehearse.

Emil speaking backstage with PNB principal dancer Lindsi Dec.

When the curtain goes up no one’s 100% sure how it’s going to go…plus when you have different casts it’s different, so you have to be doubly clear. There is only one cast that gets an orchestra rehearsal, usually the opening night cast, and everyone else is in the wings listening. I think they spend months downstairs in the studios listening to a piano version of Sleeping Beauty or Giselle or Don Quixote, and then to dance to that is so different from dancing to an orchestra. The piano is a percussion instrument which doesn’t sustain, but suddenly you have a full strings section and winds. It gives you more depth to dance in, but you can only experience that during the performance. But that’s the way it is, and not just here. There’s never enough time. It’s far too expensive. 

That’s another element to having to be a really good accompanist and good colleague when dancers have their one show. Peter likes doing a lot of casts, so I think we did Sleeping Beauty with 5 Auroras which is huge, so some of them will only get one show. All shows are important, but if it’s your first time dancing Aurora and you only get one, it’s a very important evening – not just for the audience, but for the dancer.

Is the size of the orchestra (57 members) unusual?

EdC: It is now, just because it’s so expensive. If you look at the trend – if you look at maybe in the 1960s you had ABT going on tour but doing Swan Lake with 20 people. I was on staff there and some of the pianists were still playing and would fill in, they would do this little bus and truck tour of smaller cities. Now you have many more companies but you have fewer companies that use live music, or that use live music to the extent that we have, because it’s so expensive.

We’re very lucky – there’s just a handful of companies in the country that have an orchestra and music department of this size. It’s so important and comes mostly from the Balanchine tradition where dance and music were equally important – it’s a side by side collaboration. And you look at him – he played piano, he was a musician, he wrote music, was good friends with all the good musicians of his day and dear friends with Igor Stravinsky. So music is integral to everything he does, and not just having live music but having it performed really well and really musically. And so that comes through Kent and Francia and also through Peter – the people who knew him.

As Principal Conductor, you work with just about everyone – Artistic Director, orchestra, dancers, choreographers. How do you navigate all those collaborative relationships?

EdC: I don’t really think about it that much, because it’s something I really like. A lot of conductors don’t; they want to be the top of the pyramid because that’s kind of the old-fashioned role of the conductor. I think it’s really great not just working with Peter, but with the lighting designer and the stage crew and the whole dramatic element of it. It’s just something I was always interested in – I was never interested in being the top of the pyramid – it’s more interesting if you’re collaborative in a big, collaborative art form. 

Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky and Delibes and all the great composers who wrote for theater, they wrote for a collaborative art form. People now kind of take all this music out of context…to have the music performed in the context in which it was written, is very important. If you read about Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, they looked at their pieces as being live and organic and in the moment, and Tchaikovsky would change things if they needed to be changed. It wasn’t like the holy writ. And there are some things we have to change in our approach to music because it’s in a different context sometimes, or if you’re doing different choreography in a ballet, the music has to fit what’s happening on stage. I think that’s honest to the intent, and to how it was written to be performed in their time…that makes it much more interesting than having it be engraved in stone and that’s the way it goes forevermore. I think the great thing about music is that it’s changeable; if you look at it as something that’s a living thing that you must breathe life into every time you play, it’s a lot more rewarding than looking at it as some dried up set of instructions.

Emil speaking at at Studio Rehearsal.

How do you bring together a piece like Don Quixote or New Suite with many different components or styles?

EdC: Style is key. We perform 400 years of music – we go very far back up until music that’s written just for us. So we have a much larger repertoire in dance than is done in symphonies or opera. So style is very important. If you’re playing Bach it has to sound in a certain stylistic way that’s true to that music. The thing with Don Quixote and Minkus is to make the music sound distinctive and actually to make it have the right character – Minkus at heart is really hard to play. It’s not as sophisticated as other composers, but it’s harder than other composers because of the time it was written in…if you perform it like Midsummer Night’s Dream, like Mendelsohn, so many of the other problems that people find in the music disappear. You have lightness, a more buoyant approach…closer to the style of Mozart than to the style of Tchaikovsky. But that’s very, very hard to pull off – we spend a lot of time just with that style, which very few orchestras play well, but I can say our orchestra plays very well. It’s just very hard, because there’s not much music written in that style that people perform. Think of Gilbert & Sullivan or Offenbach – but when was the last time you saw an Offenbach operetta? Never! I’ve never seen one!

Can you speak to how ballet keeps moving forward as an art form?

EdC: If you look at ballet and musical theater, they’re the two art forms that are doing the most new works. Otherwise [if you don’t perform new works], you wind up with a museum – it’s not a living art form, it’s a butterfly in chloroform on Styrofoam, and now it’s a dead butterfly. It’s exciting – I was working with Price on a ballet he’s doing for next season (PNB World Premiere) and we were talking about the music and how he wants to put it together, so I found a composer for him [Seattle composer Barret Anspach], and he’s going to do a very tailor-made score for Price. It’s just fun to see what he wanted, and help guide him to where the piece will eventually go before it’s premiered…to hear what he wants, excerpts of what he likes, find other like composers, just to get it so it’s his score. It’s great to do that, and to get to use a living composer.

What’s it really like to be a conductor?

EdC: You spend most of your time by yourself, at your desk. 90% of your time is spent sitting at a table with a pencil and ruler and pen. It’s not just learning the music; you have to learn the background of the composers, the time it was written, the history of the piece, and then you learn all the analysis, the harmony and the structure, the orchestration. 

You’re learning constantly. There will never be a conductor who will have conducted a Beethoven symphony with an orchestra, who has done it more than they [the orchestra] have done it. 65-80 people – you put their collective experience together as opposed to one person, no matter who they are – they’ll still have more collective experience doing what they’re doing than you will.

Taking a bow after a performance.

Can you speak to the importance of live music at the ballet?

EdC: Take Carmina Burana. People perform it a lot, it’s so popular. It was originally written as a theater piece. I think if you perform it simply as a cantata, you’re kind of missing out a little bit…I think it should be done in a dramatic way. And likewise, if you were to perform Carmina as a ballet with a recording, you’d be really missing out;. It’s the difference between watching a film of Nureyev and Fontaine vs. watching a live performance. It’s flat, it’s not multi-dimensional, it doesn’t come alive. Likewise, watching a movie as opposed to watching live people, hearing a recording as opposed to hearing live music…it’s not quite the same experience. It’s like looking at a picture of the Grand Canyon and then going to the Grand Canyon – it looks the same but the experiences spatially and emotionally are totally different. And it’s just not as much fun to dance to a recording because it’s always the same – the good thing and the bad thing is it’s always the same. Someone once said ‘Listening to recorded music in the theater is like kissing over the phone.’

EdC: The sad thing is you have to make a cause for live music, since so many people are used to recordings. People have gotten used to recordings and small sounds, so you really have to make a case for it. Our audiences here are used to it and come with that expectation of not only having live music but having it played really, really well. People come to the pit rail and look down in the pit, and kids are hearing 2 hours of really great music – it might be their first time hearing live music or their only time that year. It sticks with you and can really make an impression that they’ll never forget. Part of my job and Peter’s job and Ellen’s job is being cultural leaders in Seattle and being advocates not just for dance but for music and for the arts and nothing just rides on its own laurels – you really have to make an effort. But it’s part of what we do and part of what we’re passionate about doing.

Hear the PNB Orchestra perform with PNB March 13-22! Tickets for PNB’s All-Forsythe program on sale now.   Visit for more details.    

Interview conducted and condensed by Kristen Ramer Liang. Photos © Angela Sterling and Lindsay Thomas.