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Emily Grossman

The Nutcracker

November 29, 2006 at 11:21 AM

It was exactly one year ago, while sitting inside a coffee shop in downtown Anchorage, killing time before my departure to Hawaii, that I spied through the frosty window a trickling crowd of concert black and assorted instruments releasing from the Anchorage PAC. Warm sandy beaches awaited me, but at that particular moment, I longed for the concert life, the theater glow, the snow on the stage: the Nutcracker. Hawaii seemed unsuitable for the season; how could Christmas time be Christmas time on a ukulele, with leis instead of wreaths, and palm trees for decking with lights? I’ve always been partial to the traditional Christmas scene. Even though the ideal may not actually exist in reality, the closest thing to portraying the snow-coated, candy-cane gloss that I could imagine was the Nutcracker.

Yes, I know, it’s not particularly fashionable to form high opinions of this overly-marketed package. I’m guessing that for most of you, after about 973 times, you wretch inside like a over-stuffed Thanksgiving glutton. But I feel obliged to impart to you my own experience, since this was actually just my first time to take the pit for the Anchorage/Portland production. For me, the anticipation that built as the week neared felt like, well, just like Christmas.

Just like Christmas, the reality of performing The Nutcracker is a mixture of sweet bliss and disappointed shock. Unlike Christmas, however, the actualization of this ballet involved incredible amounts of mental and physical energy. What, on paper, appeared to be four rehearsals and six performances, in actuality, became 12 hour days of practice and focused performance, interspersed with coffee breaks of variable length. (Oh, and how can I forget the endless circling for convenient downtown curbside parking--in sub-zero temps, mind you--that devoured my gas tank and my afternoons? Such a madness I will not be craving any time soon.)

Our maestro, a guest conductor with the Portland Ballet Company, had an impeccable ear, which I grew to admire and fear. If only I could manage to perfect all the crazy trademark Tchaikovsky runs in one week’s time! Thank goodness I wasn’t the clarinetist, and I could easily slip out for a note or two, unnoticed. Every time I resorted to this tactic, I couldn’t help but give a knowing smirk to my stand partner, who thankfully seemed sympathetic to my freshman status.

Being assigned to the back stand would normally put us at a disadvantage, but this location gave us the driving growl of the demonic bass section, who gruffed out the downbeats and offbeats directly behind us with reliable regularity. They also provided a lovely spiritual contrast for the angelic chords of the harpist, who sat on my left. It was great; I’m sure I had the best seat in the house.

And so we went along, one rehearsal letter after another, balancing the voices, coordinating the pitches, sealing the tempos, and timing the entrances. Every once in a while, I would mentally disengage myself and pretend I was outside, listening in on the sound coming from the united violin section , and I was suddenly impressed at the crisp, flawless staccatos and glassy legatos. If I listened closely, I knew exactly where my voice fit in the whole scheme of things, and it clicked seamlessly into place like a jigsaw puzzle piece. Not every time, not all the time, but sometimes, we were a smooth sheet of silk, or a perfectly symmetrical wave, a sphere, a singular voice. What magic!

Is that what makes it like Christmas? That continued feeling of anticipation, the hope that perhaps the next one will contain the aesthetic essence of the perfect phrase? I get that feeling every time I perform. I’m excited to see what’s in the package, anxious to see if I will get what I want this time. Sometimes, it’s more like socks and underwear, though, and you shrug and nod politely as though that was what you’d always wanted, and then you try to forget about the disappointment as quickly as possible. I wish I could be so trivial, but the disappointment of my musical transgressions tend to haunt me when I try to sleep at night, replaying like a broken record.

Strangely--or perhaps typically, for a musician–-the one image left unpainted in my mind when I think of the Nutcracker is the ballet itself. I may have actually seen it once, but when you join the pit, you automatically sign away any association with the production that’s happening on the stage. The conductor becomes the medium, and the orchestra tries its best to accommodate the unseen choreography based on his cues. The only dancers I saw hung out backstage with little attire, having their makeup applied or stretching. I didn’t even recognize the cavalier, who thoroughly confused me when he flirted with me in the halls. Who is this guy, and why does he want to know about violin technique, there with his rippling biceps and oozing charisma? He’s certainly not a pit musician! But before he could sweep me off my feet, I was swept back under the stage for the second act. It was better this way; he and the sugar plum fairy make a cute couple. And I can’t dance. The entire plot would have to be changed.

What is the plot, anyway? Something about a grandfather, a fairy, a cavalier, some chocolate... And snow. Yes, the snow.

We all saw the snow. We saw it during the first performance when it unleashed all at once in a heaping avalanche and overflowed, unwarranted, into the pit. Being the first show, I dismissed the whiteout as simply the Alaskan way of doing The Nutcracker. I was only informed later that ballet avalanches are always unsolicited acts of God, even in Alaska.

I’m still moved every time I see the snowflakes gracing the stage from the rafters. My homeland, Oklahoma, left me snow deprived as a little girl, and of all the 23 Christmases I spent there, I recall two white Christmases. When snow did come, the excitement that it brought was tenfold. Now that I’ve wintered in Alaska for seven years, I’ve worried that snowfall would become mundane and even repulsive. But no. Every single time it snows, I feel as though the world’s sins have been covered with white grace, and peace abounds. I think of snowmen and hot chocolate and missed days of school, of angels, and fir trees decked in white. You could play it 973 times, and I would never stop feeling that simple childlike joy.

Two days have passed since The Nutcracker's last performance, and clips of its music still cycle along in my radio station head. I don’t mind. Between practice bouts, I still noodle through a run or two in secret, just for the fun of it, smiling.

From Donna Clegg
Posted on November 29, 2006 at 1:20 PM
Wonderfully written. As I labor through the two Nutcracker excerpts my community orchestra is performing for our holiday concert, I can only dream of playing well enough to be in a pit one day!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 29, 2006 at 1:54 PM
I am glad that the experience was so special. I have the same feeling every year when my orchestra plays a sing-along Messiah concert, even though some of my colleagues are bored with it after 10 years. BTW, if you ever want another take on the Nutcracker, I highly recommend Duke Ellington's version.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 29, 2006 at 7:31 PM
Please don't tell me that's that jazz version I've been hearing at parties, restaurants, and department stores. I'd never heard it before this year, and now it's all I hear!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 29, 2006 at 8:21 PM
Emily - it probably is the jazz version you are hearing everywhere. Sorry to break the news. I do not particularly like the Nutcracker, but I find the Ellington version tolerable.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 29, 2006 at 11:41 PM
gosh, your writing is sooo good,
From Richard Hellinger
Posted on November 30, 2006 at 1:39 AM
DONT EVEN SAY THAT WORD!! The Nutcracker lol jk. I played one of my 2 nutcracker performances (I am lucky, they went easy on us this year) already and my next one is next Friday... I get to miss school!!!... But I have Scene 12 letter d running through my head right now... with the flute solo, where the strings put their bows down... very catchy...

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