It was a normal Monday off for me yesterday, so I took the opportunity to put up our Christmas tree. Doing so as a child, we always put on Christmas music and made it a family affair – even so, I think we managed, in our incredibly musical household that loved Christmas more than just about anything, to have all of two or three Christmas albums. Fortunately, nowadays I have Youtube, so I thought about it and landed on a Russian orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and got to work. The young conductor was quite smiley, the orchestra had fun with it, and they played beautifully. Pragmatically speaking, at an hour and a half the program length is well-suited to a tree decorating project.
The Nutcracker holds a special place of holiday cheer for me, as it does for many people. Growing up, The Wichita Symphony played it annually – the Wichita Public Schools bussed kids down to Century II, the Symphony’s primary venue, for daytime performances during December. I think I remember it cost five dollars. It’s a great kid-friendly symphonic experience – there can be dancing, and of course the piece is filled with less-than-traditional orchestral sounds and surprises.
But I haven’t seen a production since. Watching the whole thing yesterday reminded me about how great the Suite is.
The Nutcracker, a ballet, was a commission, written by Tchaikovsky in 1890-1892. It opened in 1892 in St. Petersburg at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre along with a concurrently commissioned opera by the composer on December 18. Mixed reviews greeted the performance, and it has achieved its greatest success as a holiday staple in the United States since about the 1960s. Wikipedia reports that modern ballet companies tend to rely on its performances for about 40% of their annual revenue. Take that, Swan Lake!
As I read the Wikipedia article, I was reminded of the celesta, the lovely, ethereal instrument so prominently featured in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies section of the ballet. It’s one of those instrumental devices that you can only get so much mileage out of – musical accents of that type need to be used sparingly. Of course Tchaikovsky’s ballet is the most famous example anywhere of the instrument’s capabilities.
I don’t think a performance of The Nutcracker is in the cards for this season, but maybe next year we’ll dig one up. Here’s a performance of the orchestral part of the ballet, the hall-decking music I enjoyed yesterday:
Thanks for reading.