It’s that magical time of year. Time for holiday cheer, good will toward men (and women), and all things jolly. But, most of all, for many classical musicians, it’s Nutcracker time. Over the years, I’ve heard many of my colleagues whine and complain about playing the Nutcracker and quite frankly, I simply don’t understand their plight. OK, so you’ve played it a zillion times. So what, it’s really great music (Hello, Snow Pas de Deux, you make me want to cry because you are so beautiful!). I wish I could say to those Negative Nancy’s “For just one minute, turn your attention to another part of the orchestra – you may discover something pretty awesome in this beautiful score”. (OK, well I guess I just did) Me? I like to sing along in my head with the other sections of the orchestra, especially the cellos, basses and low brass (yes, this is because I’m married to a bass trombonist). Seriously, listening to those inner lines and super lush harmonies, makes it so much more interesting and enjoyable when it comes time for me to lay my parts down. It’s just chamber music after all, really big chamber music, but still.
My love affair with the Nutcracker began as a small child. No, I didn’t get dressed up in my holiday best and taken to the local production where I grew up. My experience with the Nutcracker was a little different than most. I tagged along with my Dad to nearly every single Nutcracker performance that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Dance Detroit presented each year, which if memory serves correctly, was somewhere in the ballpark of 25 or more shows per season back then. And it didn’t stop there: my sister Gina was a dancer and danced with Dance Detroit in that production, so all year long I would “partner” her as she learned new choreography for potential roles she hoped to dance for the next year, or simply to sharpen the saw with the roles she needed to keep up throughout the year. We’d put the album on (the Urso household recording was the Andre Previn/London Symphony recording from 1972 – the one with the groovy pink cover) and get to work. I was a pretty horrible dancer, but I was a willing participant in this routine event with Gina. I think on some level I secretly wanted to be a dancer like her. But it didn’t stop there, no sir. All year long, driving back and forth downtown to Ford Auditorium for DSO concerts, Dad wouldn’t let Gina and I listen to the radio in the car, so she and I would sing sides 1 and 2 of the album on the way downtown, and sides 3 and 4 on the way home after the concert.
All. Year. Long.
On top of that, each December, the DSO would split into two orchestras: the Messiah orchestra, and the Nutcracker orchestra, then they’d switch back and forth each year. We’d always ask my Dad on his Messiah years to switch to the Nutcracker orchestra, which he always happily did because he loved playing Nutcracker (turns out, he wasn’t a huge fan of playing the Messiah). So, maybe this is why he never minded Gina and I singing the Nutcracker at the top of our lungs all year long in the car (not just the obvious melodic material either, we’re talking harmony and counter melodic material – we rocked!).
I think I was about 19 when I got my first call to play the ballet. I remember it well: Rochester Symphony (MI, not NY) 3rd flute/piccolo. I was over the moon. Knowing the ballet inside and out actually made it a little tricky when it came to counting rests those first few performances. I learned pretty quickly to rely upon my ears and the thorough knowledge of the score, and to trust myself. It was pretty awesome getting to finally be a part of this thing I knew so well but had never really been a part of.
Since then, I’ve played it many times, with many different orchestras in Michigan and in California, and in every chair; 1st flute, 2nd flute/piccolo, and 3rd flute/piccolo. The part I currently play each December with the Oakland East Bay Symphony/Oakland Ballet production is a reduced orchestration part for 2nd flute/piccolo, which combines parts of 2nd flute, 3rd flute/piccolo, and even some 3rd oboe parts, too. I love it. It’s challenging because of the “choreography” required of me, having to switch back and forth between flute and piccolo so often. Having played the other three original orchestration parts many times, it was a fun challenge getting used to this book and now I love it. I think it has become my favorite chair and part to play.
As I was heading out to rehearsal the other day, I was trying to count up the number of times I’ve played the Nutcracker over the years and kept losing count. Honestly, I think it has to be somewhere near 200 times -which for some of my orchestral friends/colleagues who play in ballet orchestras, this may seem like a drop in the bucket – but it’s a lot no matter how you slice it.
I have such wonderful memories of my youth with the Nutcracker, my Dad playing in the pit, as well as my future flute teachers Robert Patrick and mentor, Clem Barone, not to mention my sister Gina on stage. I loved to sit up in the little secret box seat at Ford Auditorium, usually reserved for the assistant conductor or other VIP’s, and watch Clem play. I couldn’t see my Dad very well from that vantage point, but I had an excellent view of the flutes. At one of of DSO/DD dress rehearsals, the ballet master Iacob Lascu, who would always sit in the audience with a microphone, was barking out orders to the dancers on stage – he kept yelling in his super thick Romanian accent “who eese thee mouse with thee pink tightssss!?!?!?” As it turned out, Gina didn’t have enough time to switch costumes completely, and came out in her mouse costume with pink tights, instead of black, like the other dozen mice! Good thing she remained anonymous, underneath her big, ugly, furry, mouse head. Another favorite memory is from when I was really young; I’d hunt down individual players in the DSO during the regular part of the orchestra season and ask them to play excepts of the Nutcracker for me on the spot. They’d always comply.
Of course, I have some especially fond memories from various productions that I’ve played over the years:
There was the time that the Russian dancers in the Russian Dance (a.k.a. Trepak) insisted on a repeat which basically meant doing almost the entire thing twice, and much, much faster than I’ve ever heard it since. These guys were off the charts with what they could do physically. Truly amazing. In that same production, our Sugar Plum Fairy was also Russian and I remember her at a dress rehearsal, in the midst of a series of very fast pirouettes along the edge of the stage, yelling out in her thick accent “FESTAH!”
Or how about the beautiful, LIVE horse that drew the carriage across the stage during the snow scene – a unique and very cool touch!
And speaking of snow scenes, there was production where dry ice was used during the snow scene and the stage crew needed to use it up on the final day. It came pouring into the pit so thickly that we could barely see our music.
Another memorable experience for me was getting to play the “Hard Nut” with the Mark Morris Dance Group. What an incredible experience, and one I’ll never forget. The role of the maid is played by a very tall, muscular man, who dances the role ON POINT! If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.
Our production in Oakland is absolutely beautiful in every way; the dancing, the sets, the costumes, and let’s not forget our gem of a hall, the Paramount Theater. Everything about it is magical. In our production, Clara gets to hang out inside of this cool little chocolate cupcake for the whole second act while she’s in the land of the sweets. Yes, I’m a little jealous of this. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I cannot recommend our production highly enough. I am so proud to be a part of this organization. Our orchestra is made up of a group of truly remarkable people, who also just happen to be first class musicians. We have a great time together, both on stage, (or in the pit, as the case may be) …
…or off …
…and it shows! And to top it off, my husband Steve and I get to play in the same orchestra together – even better!
I never tire of playing the Nutcracker. Never.
Aside from it being technically challenging music, and requiring a certain amount of detailed practice work in preparation for each December, it’s great music, it’s fun to play, and then there’s the dancing – which is fabulous. Even after all the years that Dad played it (we’re talking many many times friends, remember he was in the DSO for 46 years after all) he would always spend some time practicing a few key spots in the first violin part every year. I do the same with a few key spots in my part each year. Each of the flute parts are very different from one another, and each present different challenges. You can easily create an embouchure flexibility exercise with Mother Gigogne, or a technical etude study from the final coda before the finale…
I have one more performance, on Christmas Eve. And, you just know when I hear the violins play those first notes in the overture, I’ll be smiling, thinking about my Dad, my sister Gina, the dozens of great memories of my Nutcrackers over the years – and getting my earplugs ready for another battle scene.