LONDON — When students at the Royal Ballet School scattered to their homes around the globe during the first British lockdown last spring, classes went virtual and, at first, proved quite tricky.

It was not just about time differences, with Chinese, Australian and Japanese students, among others, not keen to get up in the middle of the night to meet classmates on the virtual barre during the day in Europe.

Technical issues also arose as the recorded music that teachers played was out of sync. “When I would look at my screen, we’d be doing grand battement and our legs would be in different positions, and everyone was on totally different timings,” recalled Ava May Llewellyn, a 19-year-old British ballerina who has been at the school since she was 11. “And the teachers would always say: ‘Yeah, really good work. However, musicality wise, I don’t really know who is right.’”

But things improved.

By England’s second (October) and third (December to March 2021) lockdowns, teachers and students had reconfigured their digital settings, allowing them to work with a live accompanist, and living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and back porches around the world had become makeshift dance studios.


Next week, the students’ hard work during hybrid training — they returned to in-person teaching in early March — will be on display at their annual summer performance on the main stage at the Royal Opera House. On Saturday, for the first time in two years, 88 of the 210 the dancers will be able to perform before a sold-out, socially distanced audience.

This year’s showcase, eagerly awaited because the pandemic canceled last year’s, includes classical as well as contemporary works like “Elite Syncopations,” which the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan created for the Royal Ballet in 1974.

Founded 95 years ago by the dancer and choreographer Ninette de Valois, the Royal Ballet School is the official training home of both the Royal Ballet, headquartered at the Royal Opera House, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Over the years, both ballet companies have drawn a majority of their dancers from the school’s graduates.

In an email, Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, called the showcase “a fantastic opportunity to witness some of the most exciting upcoming talent in dance today,” and Caroline Miller, chief executive of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, said the school’s “excellent classical training has developed what is now celebrated globally as ‘the English style.’”

Dancers who are 11 to 16 live at the lower school, on the outskirts of London; others, 16 to 19, are at the upper school, linked by a footbridge to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.


Each class year has about 30 students, almost evenly divided between boys and girls. By the time of the final show on July 10 — which this year will feature only the older students — the school will have put on 32 shows in various venues around London, mostly just for parents and school supporters.

Famous graduates of the school include Margot Fonteyn, Darcey Bussell, Marianela Nuñez and Sergei Polunin. “A lot of people really aspire to go there,” said Clark Eselgroth, 18, who went home to North Carolina during the first lockdown. “I grew up watching videos of the Royal Ballet performing, so I always thought that was my dream.”

Like a number of international students during lockdown, Mr. Eselgroth was not able to be in all the same classes as his year group or to have his regular teacher. “But I had other teachers that I may not have had as much, which was really great,” he said. “The more eyes on you for different things, the more hopefully you will grow.”

Ms. Llewellyn, too, found a bright side in isolation. “I definitely learned to be driven, self-motivated and able to correct myself more,” she said about working at a small barre in her bedroom at her parents’ house in Bristol. “In the studio at school, you are doing all these exciting pieces of rep” so there might not be time to think about working on “these tiny details.”


The teachers also found some fulfillment. Ricardo Cervera said that digital instruction was “unchartered territory for everybody,” but that there were surprising benefits. Not only were students forced to go back to basics — most did not have space at home for moves like jumping and pirouettes — but they also focused more on things like Pilates and strength training.

“By the time we got back to school, we could fly and move forward much faster,” said Mr. Cervera, a former first soloist with the Royal Ballet and an alumnus of the school. “All the basics — the turnout, the placement, all of their alignment — we had so much time to work on. And actually, as a result, I saw real progress in their technique, coming back really strong and confident about themselves in their own ability.”

He added that the school might incorporate some of the digital learning as a tool for reinforcing the basics of ballet.

While all the dancers were eager to get back into the studio, the school’s health care team stepped up to assess, with the teachers, how to ease the dancers back in without injuries and care for their mental health as well.

“It was a bit of a shock to begin with,” Ms. Llewelyn said of returning, “but you know, it does come back quickly.”
Royal Opera House


Mr. Eselgroth, who will be joining the youth company of the Finnish National Ballet in the autumn, said he had butterflies when the students recently started costume rehearsals for the showcase. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is why I do this,’” he said, “and this is such a source of happiness for all of us.”


Photos credits: 1) Credit…Amber Hunt; 2) Credit…2021 The Royal Ballet School, photo by Rachel Cherry

While there won’t be an in-house audience for the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert this time around, classical music lovers across the globe will still be able to experience it — and applaud the musicians — together.

Viewers in more than 90 countries, on networks including the BBC and PBS, can register online to share their appreciation via their tablets, smartphones or computers. (As of Wednesday, due to the large number of registrations, new applications were temporarily blocked.) That recorded applause will be played through the Musikverein’s sound system so that the musicians playing in the “Golden Hall,” as well as an estimated audience of 30 million to 50 million, will be able to share their delight.

The conductor for the concert is Riccardo Muti, whose 50-year relationship with the orchestra will be celebrated throughout the performance with several nods to his Italian homeland. They include Josef Strauss’s “Margherita Polka,” originally composed in 1868 for the wedding of Princess Margherita, of Genoa, to Crown Prince Umberto of Italy.


Also featured will be the “Venetianer Galopp” by Johann Strauss Sr., which is the oldest work in the program and one that had gone out of style for a time. It was first performed in 1834 in Vienna’s Augarten park during a Venetian-inspired gala ball that had backdrops based on St. Mark’s Square. The initial success of the piece, which includes clicking castanets, was said to have persuaded the Austrian composer and music publisher Tobias Haslinger to issue the piece in editions both for piano and for orchestra.


Daniel Froschauer, who is both the Vienna Philharmonic’s chairman of the board as well as a first violinist, said that conversations about which pieces would be played for the 2021 New Year’s Concert started with Mr. Muti in the summer of 2019, during the Salzburg Festival. “Riccardo Muti was fairly easy because he is so experienced, this will be his sixth New Year’s Concert, so he knows the program,” Mr. Froschauer said. “And then my first question would be, ‘In what direction would you like to go?’”

Most of the big musical decisions were made by the beginning of January this year, via phone calls and emails — including to the Philharmonic’s archive, to make sure the concert would not be too long or too short. Then in June, when Mr. Muti was in Vienna for two performances with the orchestra in front of an audience capped at 100 people, the programming was finalized.

The “big challenge,” Mr. Froschauer said, “is to make this New Year’s Concert a cheerful event,” one that sets a tone for the year ahead.One of the pieces Mr. Froschauer said he was especially looking forward to playing was the “Fatinitza” march, which the Philharmonic has never performed. The piece, from the operetta of the same name, premiered in 1876 at Vienna’s Carltheater. Written by the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé — known for his light operas — the story, a comedy of disguise, is set during the Crimean War.

Also making Philharmonic debuts in the program: two 19th-century composers, Carl Millöcker and Carl Zeller. Better known as a composer and conductor, Millöcker was also a talented flute player who worked with von Suppé when his operettas were performed in Vienna at the Theater in der Josefstadt. Millöcker’s uplifting “In Saus und Braus Galopp” (Living It Up) was written for his operetta “Der Probekuss” (The Trial Kiss) and premiered in 1894.

As a boy, Zeller performed as a soprano alongside the orchestra at the Vienna Court Chapel. His operetta “Der Obersteiger” (The Mine Foreman) starts with a call for a strike in a mine in southern Germany, and the waltz “Grubenlichter” takes its name from the portable light miners used which had a wick and flame enclosed in a mesh screen.

Just before the global applause is piped through the speakers at the Musikverein, the orchestra will play Johann Strauss Jr.’s upbeat “Sturmisch in Lieb’ und Tanz” (Tempestuous in Love and Dance), which was written 140 years ago for an annual ball held for local Viennese writers and journalists.

“I am looking forward to playing the big waltzes that have been part of our tradition for so long,” Mr. Froschauer said. “And the one thing Maestro Muti never gives up is trying to make us sound more beautiful.”


Photo courtesy: Terry Linke via Vienna Philharmonic website

LONDON–Andris Nelsons is good at keeping a secret. The Latvian-born music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra knew long before it was announced that he would be holding the baton for the 2020 New Year’s Day Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic. Read more

LONDON — On a recent spring morning, the Royal Opera House’s revival workroom, which is part of the costume department, was a hive of activity. Amedine Bello, one of the revival workroom technicians, was hand-sewing gold thread onto a burgundy and pink chorus costume for the opera “Faust,” opening this week, because part of it had worn away. Read more

VIENNA — Not long after Anneleen Lenaerts took up the harp at the age of 9, her parents had to buy a new car. It was a pragmatic purchase because their old family vehicle simply did not have enough room to comfortably accommodate the budding musician and her bulky instrument as they drove around her native Belgium for classes, concerts and competitions. But in the new vehicle, said Ms. Lenaerts, principal harpist of the Vienna Philharmonic, they could take out a middle seat and push the harp inside.

“I was lucky my parents didn’t say, ‘Sorry, Anneleen, just choose the saxophone,’” she said with a laugh over lunch at a cafe across the street from Musikverein, where the musicians were on a break before an almost monthlong tour of Japan and China in November. “I may be one of the only harpists in the world who does not have a driver’s license because when other people were on school holidays learning to drive, I was traveling so much.”

It’s very unlikely that Ms. Lenaerts, 31, will be making a New Year’s resolution to get that license because there simply isn’t room in her busy schedule. In 2018 she has crisscrossed the globe, performing with the Vienna Philharmonic and playing solo concerts in places as diverse as Bruges and Bogotá.

Gustavo Dudamel, the rock star musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, handpicked Lenaerts to play with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra when he was its guest conductor on a tour across Europe in September. That same month, Kalevi Aho’s “Mearra,” which the composer wrote especially for her, had its Finnish premiere.

“Anneleen is a real virtuoso of her instrument,” Mr. Aho wrote in an email. “Her technical virtuosity, her kind personality and her great flexibility in different musical styles are, in my opinion, the reasons why she is as a harpist so in demand.”

Growing up in the Flemish town of Peer, Ms. Lenaerts took up the piano at the age of 8. The next year, when the conductor of their local symphonic wind orchestra, Koninklijke Harmonie van Peer, decided he wanted a harpist, he chose her for the instrument.

“I wanted to play the oboe or the clarinet so I could have a little case to go to rehearsals,” she said. “Usually girls choose the harp because they have seen ‘The Nutcracker’ and they like ballet, but what I knew about the harp was that it gave you calluses on your fingers. I was not a typical girly-girl, so the harp did not attract me because it was so poetic, I just gave it a go.”

It soon became very obvious to all who heard her play that Ms. Lenaerts was a gifted musician; from 1997 to 2010 she won more than 20 prizes and awards in international competitions. By 15 she was working professionally and, after completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in three years at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, she went to Paris to train with the solo harpist Isabelle Perrin, all the while continuing to perform with orchestras across Europe.

“I realized how amazingly talented she was and how quickly she could not only learn something but also understand it, which is more difficult,” said Ms. Perrin, who met Ms. Lenaerts when she was 12. “I would say she is one of the top five players in the world, but she has kept that kindness and openness that is so rare when people get to that level.”

In 2010, while in Munich performing with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the conductor Mariss Janson, Ms. Lenaerts learned there would soon be an opening for a harpist with the Vienna Philharmonic. “I was very happy being a soloist, and I never wanted to enter an orchestra,” she said, recalling her hesitation before she decided to go for the tryouts.

“I was ‘number nine’ for the audition, and it was behind a curtain. I was thinking, ‘If this does not go well, I will just go back to Belgium and nobody will ever know.’” She won the audition — at just 23 — and moved to Vienna the next autumn.

“Since her engagement as a member of the Vienna Philharmonic, Anneleen has proven to be an outstanding musician with great excellence,” Daniel Froschauer, the chairman of the orchestra and its first violinist, wrote in an email. “She is a wonderful colleague.”

Ms. Lenaerts, only the eighth woman to join the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic was opened to female musicians in 1997), was a quick study, though she was warned that it would most likely take her about three years to feel fully comfortable with the repertoire, which includes 45 operas that often are not rehearsed before a performance.

A highlight of her time with the Philharmonic so far was her first New Year’s concert, in 2012, which Maestro Jansons conducted. “There is a big harp solo in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Panorama’ that I had played with him as an encore in Munich, and he picked that piece for the New Year’s concert so I was playing it with him again,” she said. “It was very special and overwhelming.”

Things are not likely to slow down anytime soon for Ms. Lenaerts. She will, of course, be performing in the New Year’s concert with the Vienna Philharmonic and she plans to continue traveling every two weeks to teach at Conservatorium Maastricht in the Netherlands (she is also on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado). In March she will perform at the Louvre in Paris and head to New York to play with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.Later in the spring, after a number of soloist engagements, she will record Mr. Aho’s double concerto for harp and English horn with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.

In the spring Warner Classics will release her third album, “Nino Rota: Works for Harp by Anneleen Lenaerts.” It will feature new arrangements for the harp of music by the Italian classical and film composer Nino Rota, best known for his scores for movies including “The Godfather” and “La Dolce Vita.”

“I knew she was one of the artists who has improved the technique of the instrument, who has expanded the limits of the instrument, and I was very happy and surprised that she was extremely open to new things with the arrangements, which you have to do with the harp,” said Jean-Philippe Rolland, an executive vice president at Warner Classics. “She belongs to this generation of classical artists who are more open-minded, open to new collaborations. I think she is the future of the instrument.”


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