Saturday, January 2, 2016

IT'S NUTCRACKER TIME






The holiday season is the time to unleash an annual barrage of seemingly endless productions of The Nutcracker ballet, courtesy of Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker has long been a staple of the Christmas season - - like uneaten fruitcakes and stale candy canes. Every wannabe dancer who can don a tutu and maintain a vertical position somehow manages to land a role in the The Nutcracker. The sheer amount of holiday productions is staggering - - from backyard regional poverty row performances to big city lavish extravaganzas.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love The Nutcracker. It contains some of the most delightful holiday music ever written. I never tire of it no matter how many times I've seen it - - but it has been done to death in more rancid productions than anyone cares to remember. Many performances seem merely obligatory, with no sense of style or imagination. The dancers mime their way through the synthetic snow with less enthusiasm than somnambulists.

In truth, despite the deliciously delightful musical score, there's not very much for the principal dancers to do. It's all visually pleasing, but you won't see any breathtaking balletic feats - - like the 32 fouettes that Odile sweats out in Swan Lake.

Fortunately, the music more than compensates for sparse virtuoso footwork. Tchaikovsky perfectly captures the magical spirit of Christmas Eve and the spectacular journey into a snow-drifted candyland dreamscape.

There are rare exceptions to mediocre productions. The 1989 Bolshoi production with revised choreography by Yuri Grigorovich is superb - - as are the principal dancers Irek Mukhamedov and Natalya Arkhipova.

I know the music by heart, having once been a ballet rehearsal pianist in L.A. I still have the musical score and still occasionally play the entire ballet on the piano. My cats are my sole audience and they refuse to dance.


Gelsey Kirkland in her luscious prime


I've seen many live performances of The Nutcracker - - from Los Angeles to New York. My first was the 1977 American Ballet Theater production with Gelsey Kirkland and Makhail Baryshnikov. I was never a Baryshnikov fan, but at the time I was in love with Gelsey Kirkland. That was long before she eventually turned into a frumpy hag - - ravaged from too many drugs and far too many silicone injections.


The best Nutcracker that I've seen recently is Helgi Tomasson's  production with the San Francisco Ballet. It aired on PBS a few years ago and is still in their active repertoire.


A photo of the original 1892 production of The Nutcracker.
Some of these "snowflakes" look slightly past their prime, and probably consumed too much bread with their borscht.

The premiere production of The Nutcracker took place at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892. The performance was less than successful - - very possibly because it was on a double bill with Tchaikovsky's uninspiring opera Yolanta.

My own personal theory is that, after sitting through a tedious opera, the audience was less than enthusiastic about sitting through an entire ballet. But it's only a theory.

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky wasn't initially pleased with The Nutcracker, either. He felt that his two previous ballets - Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty - were far superior. In a technical sense, he was correct. He also thought that his creative abilities had fizzled. That's where he was wrong. The popularity of The Nutcracker has steadily increased through the years. The timeless enchanting music is synonymous with the holiday season and is endeared by balletomanes and non-ballet enthusiasts alike.

Here's a crude rehearsal tape of my own arrangement of the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker ballet. This is a drastically abbreviated rendition. My original one is over five minutes long.

video
 




14 comments:

  1. Now....WHAT A TREAT THAT WAS!!!!! I only wish I could be there with you in the room to hear your beautiful talent! Bravo Jon!! *throws air kisses and roses* I just took my finery down except for the pines and cones for winter touches, so I enjoyed that. I love the Nutcracker Ballet and your right...certainly captures the essence of the eve. Tchaikovsky is also among one of my favorite composers and what a handsome man. Love this posting. xoxo

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  2. I'm delighted that you enjoyed my humble performance, Maddie, and I'll have to admit it - - I have a crush on Tchaikovsky......

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  3. I have this ballet on cd in my car currently; I always like to listen to it (and a charlie brown xmess) at holiday time. it's the only holiday music I can tolerate.

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    1. I've always loved the Charlie Brown music by Vince Guaraldi. I only learned recently that Guaraldi died of a heart attack when he was in his 40's.

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  4. Your passion for the score is enviable, Jon! (... the candlesticks a great accompaniment.)

    I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never seen the Nutcracker. 'Not sure why, but I believe it should be witnessed live on stage (v. a televised event.).

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    1. I only propped those candlesticks up there for of touch of "artistic" humor, but they don't look too bad.

      I've seen an enormous amount of "live" ballets (*as opposed to dead ones*) and the experience is far more impressive than watching a telecast.

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  5. Bravo! Just ran your video performance for Norma. It gets rave reviews from us both. Daughter 1st danced in Nutcracker when she was 4, and grew a long graceful neck in the years afterward. Had the pianist a fraction of your panache and skill, her neck would be twice as long.

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    1. Geo, Thanks for sharing this with Norma, and I greatly appreciate your kind comment.
      My transcription of the "pas de deux" tends to stray from the original version - - and I'm certain that some Tchaikovsky purists would like to wring my neck......

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  6. I thoroughly enjoyed your performance Jon - what a talented boy you are. The Nutcracker isn't my favourite either. We went to see Matthew Bourne's (now Sir MB as of January 1st) version a couple of years ago and although we appreciated the novelty of the comic elements, didn't care for it at all. Hugely disappointing.

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    1. Thanks, Craig. I saw the Bourne version, too, and absolutely hated it. I have nothing against his idea of humor, but he shouldn't inflict it upon a Tchaikovsky masterpiece

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  7. Sad to say, Jon, I've manage to glitch this computer and knocked out all the sound. Even though I can usually get the silent visuals I'm not even getting that on yours here. So until I can get things back to normal (if ever, on this pre-historic equipment) I'll just have to take the word of others above who've managed to watch you in full flight - and I don't doubt their positive opinings one bit.

    I love all three of Piotr's ballets - and I do think that, apart from being the supreme melodist that he was, these show his total skill at masterful orchestration, something for which he's rarely given due credit. Such imagination he had! It's unfortunate that such a crusty ol' windbag as Pierre Boulez refuses ever to conduct him - "Abominable music!" (Hmmmm. Interesting word.) I'm not even sure if he's still alive - Boulez, I mean, not Piotr Ch.

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    1. I can fully sympathize with your computer problems, since my old desktop computer behaves (or misbehaves) the same way. It takes FOREVER to do anything on it.

      I love all three of the ballets, too, and I'm always amazed at how innovative and far ahead of his time Tchaikovsky really was. I think some people sneer at his music simply because it's so beautiful and emotional.
      I have little respect for Boulez and, from what I understand, he is still among the living - at age 90.

      Hopefully this comment will make some sense - my Devil Cat Scruffy is annoying me as I write.

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    2. Perfect sense, Jon.
      With Piotr saying goodbye at 54 (I think) for reasons now coming into question, rather than the long-accepted 'suicide' story, there's just no justice that Pierre B. ('B' can stand for any number of things) should be having such an inordinately long existence. Can't he just GO!!!!

      Btw: Do contain your annoyance at Scruffy. I know the feeling when Blackso insists on being fed at 2 a.m. and starts pressing his cold, wet nose into my face. Sometimes I just want to thump him - but I never have.

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  8. Jon,
    I never tire of hearing "The Nutcracker Suite." At work, I always make sure to put in that CD every Christmas season. To me Christmas isn't Christmas unless "The Nutcracker Suite" is playing. So joyful and full of hope.
    Jon, you are so talented. Any chance of you obtaining a job at a local bar or restaurant as a background piano player? We have some folks down here in southern Delaware who do that? Do you also sing? Just a thought to spice up time in the hills of Tennessee. Jon playing at the local parlor.
    Ron

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