Nutcracker Season

NutcrackerNutcracker season is in full swing here in Richmond. My orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, will perform Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker thirteen times through December 23. Richmond Ballet’s long-term dedication to live music in the orchestra pit is commendable and elevates their already excellent productions. There is no replacement for the power and emotional punch of live music. Canned music has a “deadening” effect, while live music unleashes a creative energy which propels all other aspects of the production.

Challenges arise when you’re playing the same piece multiple times in a row. Physical and mental fatigue can set in on days when there are doubles. High decibel levels and close proximity in the orchestra pit can be painful. It’s also important to avoid going on “autopilot.” Professionalism requires that you deliver an equally exciting product in every performance, even if it’s the hundred millionth time.

When you can’t see the stage, you become increasingly aware of the drama unfolding in the music. In the moments before the clock strikes midnight, Tchaikovsky’s hushed music builds anticipation. A sudden key change and colorful splashes of harp tell us that we’ve transitioned into a magical new world. Squeaks and chirps suggest the scurrying mice. One characteristic unique to Tchaikovsky is his ability to generate intense excitement by pushing a repeated musical idea to its limit. Just when you think he can’t go any further, he takes it that one extra step. In The Nutcracker this is visually as well as musically represented with the growth of the Christmas tree. There are also moments, like the coda of the Waltz of the Flowers, where the feeling of established meter gets disrupted.

At its heart, E.T.A Hoffmann’s mythical story is about death (the toy Nutcracker is destroyed) and heroic and eternal rebirth. The hazy line between dream and reality permeates the story. As hard as it is to believe, The Nutcracker, which premiered in 1892, was not originally successful. Now it’s a glistening addition to the Christmas season in Richmond and beyond.

Perlman Plays Tchaikovsky

Listen to this amazing performance of the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto played by Itzhak Perlman.  You probably know Tchaikovsky as a Romantic composer of lush, fiery, emotionally charged music, but don’t forget that he was also a ballet composer.  You may notice a grace and elegance in the rhythm that suggests dance.

After you listen, consider what makes Perlman’s performance so exciting.  The piece is a tight rope walk but Perlman is always in control.  Notice his sense of timing and the precision of his rhythm.  The music never rushes.  Also pay attention to his highly expressive and often roaring tone.  Does this expand your perspective on what type of tone is “beautiful”?  Do you hear tone colors that you didn’t know the violin could produce?

Notice how the orchestra interacts with the solo, sometimes supporting and other times conversing.  Pay attention to each instrument’s unique personality and color.  For instance in the interlude at 5:54 notice how the melody is passed back and forth between the oboe and clarinet and then the flute and bassoon. Each voice brings a unique color.

You can find a live recording of this performance with Perlman, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at iTunes or Amazon.

Now that you’ve enjoyed the clip, you may want to hear Perlman perform the First and Second Movements of the concerto.  Perlman has some interesting things to say about the Tchaikovsky concerto here.