Meet Tal Samuel, conductor of IU Fall Ballet and Jacobs School doctoral student

Post courtesy of IU newsroom intern Sheila Raghavendran:

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 Jacobs School of Music and serves as assistant conductor at the IU Opera and Ballet Theater. She conducted the Fall Ballet performances Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, consisting of “Divertimento No. 15,” “World Premiere” and the short ballet “As Time Goes By.” She said 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 said. “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 said that mastering and transitioning between the three distinct parts of the show was a feat that she and the orchestra devoted time to refining.

Tal Samuel, an Indiana University graduate student, conducts musicians during a dress rehearsal for the fall ballet, "As Time Goes By", at the Musical Arts Center on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.

Tal Samuel led musicians through a dress rehearsal for the Fall Ballet, “As Time Goes By.” Photos by James Brosher.

“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 said. “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.”

Juggling multiple musical styles and guiding the show from the pit was something that Samuel was always passionate about. Growing up in Israel, she was introduced to music through the piano, and the viola soon after. She said 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 she soon realized that she wanted to broaden her horizons.

“There was something inside me saying, ‘’ want to get out there and see the world,'”she said. “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 said she visited Bloomington in 2012 during a production of “Der Rosenkavalier,” one of her favorite operas. While here 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 said.

After getting accepted to IU, Samuel jumped right into ballet and opera conducting. She said 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. She said 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 said, 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 said.

Elyse Borne, stager for the first ballet in this production, “Divertimento No. 15,” said Samuel readily worked alongside the onstage action.

“There are so many differences between conducting ballet and symphony,” Borne said. “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, it is facilitating communication between people that Samuel finds to be the most important.

“Your main job is to connect to people,” she said. “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 said. “And when I got here I had everything in this beautiful town, so I thought, ‘This is the right place for me.'”

Tal Samuel, an Indiana University graduate student, conducts musicians during a dress rehearsal for the fall ballet, "As Time Goes By", at the Musical Arts Center on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.

Doctoral student Tal Samuel said that as a conductor “your main job is to connect to people.”

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