Like a skilled puppeteer, she gracefully infuses the orchestra with life, color, and movement. With each sharp, smooth, and affectionate gesture, she pulls the strings that run the show.
Tal Samuel is a doctoral student at the IU Jacobs School of Music and serves as assistant conductor at the IU Opera and Ballet Theater. She conducted Fall Ballet performances, consisting of “Divertimento No. 15,” “World Premiere”, and the short ballet “As Time Goes By.” Samuel says that conducting from the pit is challenging because the conductor has to constantly control and react to the action both in the pit and on the stage.
“(In ballet) you are serving the dancers on the stage,” she says. “You are helping them and supporting their bodies with the music, in order to make what they need to do possible. The orchestra players don’t see what’s going on onstage, so in a way, I am their eyes, and I have to be able to adjust really quickly to anything going on onstage. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
Samuel, an international student from Israel, was asked this year to conduct the entire Fall Ballet after she conducted George Balanchine’s “Emeralds” in the 2014 production. She says that mastering and transitioning between the three distinct parts of the show was a feat that she and the orchestra devoted time to refining.
“You have the very classic Balanchine ballet with Mozart’s music (‘Divertimento No. 15’), then you’ve got ‘Saudade’ (‘World Premiere’) with this very modern kind of dance, with the Arvo Pärt music, which is almost religious, meditative,” Samuel says. “Then you have the Twyla Tharp choreography (for ‘As Time Goes By’), which is extremely modern and energetic, to music which is very classical, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ symphony. So I think the variety is what made it extremely interesting and worth watching.”
Samuel has always been passionate about juggling multiple musical styles and guiding the show from the pit. Growing up in Israel, she was introduced to music through the piano and the viola soon after. She says she developed an interest in conducting after many years of playing in orchestras.
Samuel completed a bachelor’s degree in orchestral conducting in Israel and started working in the field, but soon realized that she wanted to broaden her horizons.
“There was something inside me saying, ‘I want to get out there and see the world,’”she says. “Plus, I really started to get interested in opera conducting and ballet conducting, and this is something I never had the chance to do. I decided to apply to schools in the U.S. and in Europe, and one of them was Indiana, the Jacobs School of Music.”
She says she visited Bloomington in 2012 during a production of “Der Rosenkavalier,” one of her favorite operas. While visiting, she spoke to the opera’s conductor and assistant conductor, which cemented her eagerness to attend IU.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I hope I’ll get accepted (so that) I can do this: work here and study here and live here and do all this — that’s exactly what I’m looking for,’” she says.
After getting accepted to IU, Samuel jumped right into ballet and opera conducting. She says the production process for a ballet like “As Time Goes By” requires a significant amount of time in the studio, watching the dancers and stagers craft the visual performance. Samuel says she valued the experience because it gave her a chance to work closely with the ballet stagers and coaches.
One of her main goals in conducting, she says, is piecing the show together seamlessly, “making everything sync in such a way that the people in the hall feel that the show is running itself, (that) it’s a piece of cake. But it’s actually a lot of effort, a lot of responsibility and thought,” Samuel says.
Elyse Borne, stager for the first ballet in this production, “Divertimento No. 15,” says Samuel readily worked alongside the onstage action.
“There are so many differences between conducting ballet and symphony,” Borne says. “We give the conductor very little leeway to express their artistic desires because we need sounds, tempos, pauses, beats that are consistent and sometimes differ from the way the music was written. We really appreciated her eagerness to achieve these goals.”
Of all her responsibilities as conductor, facilitating communication between people is the most important to Samuel.
“Your main job is to connect to people,” she says. “You’re working with people, human beings, and it’s about connection and about inspiring them to play in a certain way, so that the music, the vision of the composer will get life and will be able to communicate with the audience.”
As she prepares to receive her doctorate this year through the Department of Orchestral Conducting, Samuel is thankful for her time at the Jacobs School and the people who have helped her achieve her goals.
“What I was looking for was the variety: new music, symphony music, opera, ballet,” she says. “And when I got here I had everything in this beautiful town, so I thought, ‘This is the right place for me.’”
–Written by IU newsroom intern Sheila Raghavendran, originally posted in Arts at IU blog, Nov. 7, 2016