When Carmon DeLeone walks down the halls of the Cincinnati Ballet building, his stride is akin to a jazzy tap-dance. It’s to the rhythm he’s been hearing for the past 50 years not only as music director for the company, but also in every way he’s made music a part of his daily life. A production of Peter Pan, a ballet complete with DeLeone’s original score, will mark his ceremonious 50th anniversary with the Cincinnati Ballet.
Guests can take in the classic tale — based on author J.M Barrie’s work of the same name about a boy who never grew up — Oct. 25-28 at Over-the-Rhine’s Music Hall. Fitting for a 50th celebration, the ballet in two-acts is DeLeone’s best-known work, renowned even across the seas — he conducted its debut in London’s Royal Festival Hall during a 28-performance tour with the Atlanta Ballet.
But his career with the Cincinnati Ballet began circa 1968, when he was a member of the conducting staff at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. One of his first assignments was to conduct a program with the ballet.
The burgeoning organization was a guest of the CSO, where he met then-artistic director David McLain, who asked DeLeone “right on the spot” if he wanted to become their music director. Fifty years down the line, DeLeone says that the ballet flourished because McLain “was looking into the future.”
DeLeone’s tenure in Cincinnati had begun not too long before, in 1960. Following an audition near his hometown of Ravenna, Ohio, he received a full scholarship to study French horn performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. He became an assistant to Erich Kunzel — who led the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for 32 years — who introduced him to the CSO, and Max Rudolph, the then-music director of the CSO.
DeLeone says these experiences were invaluable in setting the course for his conducting career, as well as his first official gig: a CCM production of Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. Conducting performances began to stack up, from his professional gig for dancer Juliet Prowse on a West Coast tour to a series of Jazz concerts at CCM, where he played the drums.
“I’m kind of proud of the fact that we kind of broke the glass ceiling if there was one for Jazz,” DeLeone says. “It was not really accepted at that time, and now of course there are Jazz study programs in every university.”
It’s a strong résumé to accumulate in such a short period of time, and one to which DeLeone kept adding. He conducted for the Illinois Philharmonic and the recently closed Middletown Symphony Orchestra, he taught at Miami University, hosted a Sunday morning radio show and would occasionally play drums for nighttime Jazz gigs. And there was Cincinnati Ballet.
For many years, DeLeone also hired and rehearsed musicians to form the Cincinnati Ballet’s orchestra for the other productions on the bill. Following an establishment from the Louise Dieterle Nippert Musical Arts Fund in 2009, the CSO is now the regular performing orchestra for Cincinnati Ballet. They are enlisted by the company for five weeks out of the year — three one-week engagements and one two-week engagement for the Nutcracker run.
“It’s terrific that we have the advantage of having that wonderful orchestra in the pit to play some very difficult pieces of music such as this season’s program that includes Firebird and Rite of Spring,” says DeLeone. “It’s wonderful.”
Other orchestral music for the current season includes DeLeone’s own score for Peter Pan as well as Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker Suite” and score for The Sleeping Beauty. More music from DeLeone comes later in the season, with a new composition (as part of season-closing Bold Moves) entitled “Dancing to Oz,” which premieres in April and is created by the ballet’s artistic director Victoria Morgan.
“I think the very act of being a ballet conductor (is that) it almost launches you into the position of being good at communicating and collaborating,” says Morgan, who has worked closely with DeLeone since she came to the Cincinnati Ballet in 1997. Their first opportunity for collaboration was in 1998, when Morgan choreographed Princess & the Pea, a short, one-act ballet based on the classic tale, for which DeLeone composed the score.
“He listens and he is rational,” Morgan says. “Part of our love and attraction for him is he brings the history of our ballet company and music to us. He is our connection to the past.”
Conducting for a ballet company necessitates one more type of collaboration: with the dancers themselves. Before a performance, DeLeone studies the music inside and out so he knows the cadence and the flow of the notes as they trip across the stage, through the instruments and into the audience’s ears. But he watches the dancers, too — he notices if they are getting too tired too quickly and if the music is pushing or pulling them in tempo.
“I think Carmon and I had a very special relationship because he really knew how to put me in my place and my request for tempos,” says Sarah Hairston, who danced with the company from 2001 through the start of the 2016-2017 season, and now serves as the director of academy training for the ballet’s Otto M. Budig Academy.
Hairston danced in Peter Pan a number of times, taking on the lead role of Tiger Lily in two separate productions. She cites the role as challenging, calling it “deceivingly exhausting.” Frequently, she would look to DeLeone to both calm her nerves and feel more secure.
“He challenged me when I needed to be challenged and always was there for me when I needed him to be,” she says. “One of the main reasons why I never wanted to go and dance for another company was because I couldn’t imagine dancing without Carmon in the pit.”
At every production, after the lights dim, a spotlight shines on the orchestra pit. DeLeone pops up in his signature jaunty style, takes a brief bow, and guides the wild applause to the musicians. Then he settles into doing what he does best, what he’s been doing for the last 50 years and plans to continue doing for as long as it feels right: conducting.
A former version of this story noted that "Peter Pan" kicked of Cincinnati Ballet's season. "The Kaplan New Works Series" started the 2018-2019 season in September.
Cincinnati Ballet’s Peter Pan will kick-off Carmon DeLeone’s 50th season as Cincinnati Ballet’s Music Director Oct. 25-28 at Music Hall. Tickets and more info: cballet.org.