'The Nutcracker' as it was intended

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Lincoln, Neb., is one of the few cities that offers Tchaikowsky's ballet with a live orchestra

 

By Barbara Schmit

One doesn’t have to walk very far in the mall or channel surf for very long during the month of December before hearing a familiar excerpt from one of the most famous holiday pieces in the world: “The Nutcracker” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Commissioned in 1891 by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatres, “The Nutcracker” ballet was first performed at the Imperial Maiinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia in December of 1892.

Since then, Tchaikovsky’s music and this charming ballet have delighted audiences throughout the world. Orchestras perform “The Nutcracker Suite” and ballet companies tell the timeless story through dance, but rarely are arts organizations able to present the music and dance simultaneously as Tchaikovsky had intended: with a live orchestra.

Lincoln, Neb., is one of few cities with the commitment and tradition of providing live music for its “Nutcracker” audiences. The Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company’s “Nutcracker” involves over 200 cast members, professional guest artists and the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra, all collaborating to produce a full production at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Lied Center for Performing Arts. While many ballet companies have turned to recorded music, the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company has recognized the importance of live music and continued to provide it for dancers and audiences.

Shari True, artistic director of the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company, says that working with a live orchestra is aesthetically superior to using recorded music. She states that the children “feel so important—like the orchestra is playing just for them.” Not only does the live orchestra improve the emotional experience for dancers, but it also creates a more professional environment for them. Because the music is not played exactly the same way at rehearsals and performances, dancers must listen carefully and be aware of tempos at all times. Dr. Herbert Dregalla, who has conducted the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra for “The Nutcracker” since 1995, agrees, noting that “there is a dynamic presence and excitement that is created with the real time sounds created by the musicians in a concert setting. Every year that I have conducted, the dancers, and in particular the professional dancers, seek me out to tell me how much they enjoy working with a live orchestra. It’s not a tangible thing, but it is certainly sensed. It is a significantly different experience when recorded music is used, even with the most sophisticated sound system. Live art of all types is really where the action is. Everything else, no matter how good or close to the original, is just an imitation. A Renoir poster may have great color, but it is a cheap imitation of the real masterpiece in the museum. A recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ may sound just fine through a good system, but it does not have nearly the same aesthetic presence and impact as a live orchestra performing.”

Dregalla also lists practical reasons that a live orchestra is beneficial to a ballet performance. “In the years that I have conducted ‘Nutcracker’ in Lincoln, there have been a variety of times when I was able to save disaster. One time, a prop was stuck off stage and, by slowing the music, I was able to buy time for the crew to get the prop untangled and on to the stage. If they had been using a recording, it would have just played on. Another time one of the principal dancers sprained her ankle and the understudy was forced to dance the performance without having a rehearsal. The ballet director came to me and asked me to do that particular dance at a slower tempo. I was able to do this (with, of course, the assistance of the professional musicians who watch and follow), and the performance went just fine. It seems like there are a couple of these issues each year, some large, some small, but having the live orchestra and a conductor resolves these issues without anyone in the audience even being aware that they existed.”

Live music comes with challenges, as well. Many ballet companies use recorded music because of financial constraints. Fortunately, the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company board of directors believes strongly in the importance and benefits of live music, so they work diligently each year to find funding for the professional orchestra. Another challenge is limited rehearsal time to coordinate the orchestra with the dancers. Dregalla listened to recordings and attended many Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company rehearsals prior to his first “Nutcracker” to become comfortable with the music, tempi and other elements of the ballet. “Conducting a great work like ‘Nutcracker’ is always fun. That being said, it was extra fun for me at that time because my daughter danced. I had the best seat in the house!” Since then, he has returned each year to conduct, even after moving from Nebraska to Ohio several years ago. “I come back each year because I enjoy the music, I enjoy the challenge (it never gets easier and I still work all fall re-studying the score), and I enjoy seeing and working with all my friends in the orchestra. Beyond that, I believe in using live music for ballet and conducting ‘Nutcracker’ allows me to be part of that process.”

The 2008 “Nutcracker” marks the 14th year that live music has been provided by the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra (NSCO). Dean Haist, executive director of the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra, formed the orchestra in 1995 and has been providing live music—as first trumpet in the orchestra and as executive director—ever since. Comprised of professional musicians from the Lincoln and Omaha areas, this ensemble has also performed for operas, musical productions and a variety of concerts throughout the area, including special events for Nebraska Wesleyan University, Doane College and area churches. In 1994, the NSCO performed with Rod Stewart in a sold-out performance at Lincoln’s Devaney Center. In the last several years, the NSCO has performed Bach’s “Magnificat,” Handel’s “Messiah,” and Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” in addition to providing local musicians for the touring productions of “Ragtime” and “Chicago” at the Lied Center.

This December, local musician Ric Ricker will play horn with the NSCO for “The Nutcracker” for his 13th year. In the past, he played “The Nutcracker” with the Knoxville Symphony from 1969–1973, the Fort Worth Symphony from 1976–1979 and the Nashville Symphony from 1980–1991. After so many performances, one might think the music would become less interesting, but Ricker enthusiastically states, “The score to ‘The Nutcracker’ is magnificent music, which has stood the test of time. I never tire of it, although it often tires me!” This seems to be the general opinion of Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra musicians: Many of the same musicians play for “The Nutcracker” each year, returning for the great music—and hard work—the camaraderie, the excitement of working with a large cast of talented dancers, and the rewards of playing for Lincoln’s supportive and enthusiastic audiences.

So the next time you hear “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” don’t just hum along. Call the Lied Center for tickets and treat yourself to one of Lincoln’s treasures, “The Nutcracker Ballet.”

 

The Nutcracker Ballet will be performed at the Lied Center for the Performing Arts, 301 N. 12th Street, Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008, at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008, at 2:00 p.m.

 

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