Nutcrackers Past and Present

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Sunday afternoon I heard an excellent performance of an extended suite of selections from The Nutcracker performed by the ASU Symphony Orchestra on their annual Holiday Concert. Hearing them brought back a few good memories of Nutcrackers past.

I performed The Nutcracker every year I was in Nashville with the exception of the year my son was born. I never really minded playing the run, it was not overly long and the music is actually very good music if you step back from it a bit—colorfully orchestrated and pretty amazing actually for being premiered way back in 1892.

The first time I performed it the Nashville Ballet used a conductor who was basically a show conductor at the now defunct Opryland theme park. He was OK but not a favorite of the orchestra. Anyway, those that have played The Nutcracker know there is a final section of the ballet, a “coda,” that starts with the horns playing off beats. We were seated off to a side and right before that section of the last performance put on Santa hats. The conductor gave us our cue and we got the most incredible double take you can imagine. And yes Bob if you are out there reading this, I still have my hat! I wear it every year on Christmas day opening presents.

There is a part for a girl’s chorus at the end of Act I. One year, the chorus was just not cutting it and got “fired” in the middle of the run. After that, we were just told we could sing along if we wanted to (but no doubling pay!), which a lot of us did, including me, just for fun.

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Another horn section tradition from long before I was in the orchestra was the fourth horn would time the section at the end of the Chinese dance when the second horn has those bass line notes. There were many years of records of the timing of that dance recorded in the fourth horn part. It was always around 30 seconds somewhere, plus or minus a bit. If you are playing a run, time how quick your group does it for entertainment.

Finally, one year the orchestra was split for a project with Amy Grant and I played first horn on the run (with overscale!) without an assistant. The Nutcracker is a piece of cake to play with a good assistant, but without one it becomes a bit of a test of endurance. I was very careful with the chops and also found a number of spots to switch octaves with the second horn which helped.

Best wishes to all of you out there playing runs of this ballet! It is a holiday tradition to be sure that I think we all agree sounds best with live music.

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