BWW Interview: For PNB Musicians, 'The Nutcracker' Never Grows Old
When Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his final ballet, The Nutcracker, he could not have anticipated its lasting power as a much beloved classic over the centuries. Premiered just the year before his death, the ballet that seems to be the least serious of the composer's three celebrated ones (the other two being the earlier Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) actually contains some of his deepest, most introspective ballet music.
It was in the 1960s, the decade after Balanchine's first annual performance of his staging of the work, that the Christmas tradition of presenting the ballet began to take hold in the US outside of San Francisco and New York. This season is the second in which Pacific Northwest Ballet will present the Balanchine production of the ballet; but members of the PNB Orchestra have been playing the music for many years, some of them for decades. How does it feel to perform this glorious score year after year? I caught up with PNB Concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim, founding PNB Orchestra members, violinists Ingrid Frederickson and William Boyd, and Press Relations Manager Gary Tucker in advance of this season's Nov. 25 premiere to explore the issue.
EM: Ingrid and William, you two are founding members of the orchestra. Is the PNB Orchestra a completely separate entity from the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera Orchestra, or is there any overlap in personnel between orchestras?
WB: Those of us who have been in town have performed and do perform with other groups if we're asked to. But yes, it is completely separate.
IF: It used to be the Symphony. Then the Symphony got really busy after they moved into Benaroya and couldn't keep doing the Ballet, so a new PNB Orchestra was formed.
WB: It's been about 26 years now.
EM: As founding members, can you talk about how it all started, how it was decided to form a whole new orchestra?
IF: It was complicated, because you couldn't have everybody audition for their spot in a brand-new orchestra. I think they gave a certain number of points for how much you'd played as a sub at the Ballet.
WB: In my case I was a member of the core Seattle Symphony when they were playing the Ballet. I was acting principal in 1980 when we went to Europe. So I had a lot of points in the second violins because I was principal. I automatically became a second violin player because I'd played with the Symphony for years.
IF: Yes, I did too. They also took most of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, which was in Seattle for 35 years, which I played in. Joseph Silverstein was our guest principal conductor for many years. He was amazing to work with. They took the core of the Ballet from that group, so there were probably 15 of us that came into the Ballet.
EM: And now you're all about ballet. Let's get into the "meat" of Nutcracker, starting with Michael. How long have been playing Nutcracker? Do you have any idea how many performances?
MJL: I do. I actually keep a tally and I just check in before the season starts. I've done 227, which I'm sure is less than these guys. Compared to them I'm just an amateur [Laughs]. But I started in 2009, so I've done 7 seasons of Nutcracker.
EM: I've played the piece at ABT and New York City Ballet, so I'm familiar with "repertoire fatigue." Some people can't get enough of it. Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote in The Official Blog of PNB that he never gets tired of Nutcracker. How do you keep it fresh?
MJL: I think it certainly starts with the fact that it's such great music. If you didn't hear it 24 hours a day on TV, radio and commercials all the time in December, if you actually can separate that, just listen to the music, it's really fantastic music. That's where I start. Also my teacher, Josef Gingold, among the many great tips he gave me, one was that one day you'll be a professional and there may be pieces you're playing for the 200th time, you should always remember that for most of the audience it could be their first time hearing it. So you want to give it that kind of respect, the respect the music deserves.
EM: So for you, after repeated performances that's one of your foremost challenges.
MJL: Not so much a challenge but more of a responsibility where the audience is concerned.
EM: Ingrid and William, having been in the orchestra now these many years, I imagine you probably started right off the bat with Nutcracker, or did that come a little later?
IF: I think it was right off the bat.
WB: When it was the PNB Orchestra it was right away, but we'd already been doing it for a number of years.
EM: Do you have a sense of how many years that adds up to for you?
WB: Well, starting in '79. But I don't keep track like Michael.
IF: My stand partner for many years, Irv Eisenberg, who'd been assistant principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy and a member of the Philadelphia String Quartet, started playing when the orchestra formed here. He was in his 70s, sharp as a tack. We started keeping track on this music [shows Violin II part] so...1989. I can't remember if we stopped at some point, but that's what we were doing on our music. The part is rather battered [Laughs].
EM: There's a difference between yours and the opera parts. We tend to write in or reinterpret words being sung on stage, little funny things. So, '79 to '89, even though you haven't kept tally do you have an approximate idea ...400?
IF: Oh, I think between 500 and 1,000.
WB: I would think so, yes.
IF: I don't know if I want to know [Laughs].
EM: I'm just trying to get a sense of what it must be like. For me 200 la bohèmes were more than enough.
MJL: If it was more than 25 years, and some years there were more than 40 performances, it was definitely more than 1,000.
IF: We don't have to do all of them. We have to do two-thirds. For example when my children were young I chose to do less. Now they're grown up I do more.
WB: when I was performing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and had a lot of conflicts, one year I took a complete leave from Nutcracker to do one of the Broadway shows. But I choose to do as many Nutcrackers as I can because it's wonderful music, and as Michael said, we need to perform every single performance as if it's the first time the audience has heard it. You have to keep that in mind. In the Broadway pit, I think I did 276 performances of Annie and every one was exciting because of the fun the audience was having. It's the same music, but every single performance you just put your heart out because you want it to sound like a recording every time.
EM: And it has to be perfect every time. Michael, tell us about the violin solo in Act 1, the Party scene and video.
MJL: It's an entr'acte from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty that Balanchine put into his Nutcracker. It's a nice chance to spotlight the music for a while without a lot of dance. It feels like a small movement of a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It's got that kind of scope and form. It's a wonderful piece of music, really beautiful. I'm very grateful to get the opportunity to play it.
EM: That's nice for you. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake have wonderful fiddle solos. I can't wait to hear this one. Have you played this since your very first Nutcracker?
MJL: No, last season was our first doing the Balanchine. I think I've done it 35 times [Laughs].
WB: And beautiful every time.
IF: For me that was sort of a turning point of making it much easier to get through Nutcracker, Mike playing the solo [Laughs].
EM: Spoken like a true violinist. So much more fun for you. Who else wrote fiddle solos like Tchaikovsky? Everything of his is concerto-like.
WB: Yes, it makes it a lot more interesting.
EM: Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote that as a kid he couldn't get enough of listening to Nutcracker and now has a "mere" 400 performances of the work under his belt. The music does inspire you after all these years. In that regard, you seem a lot less jaded than my former colleagues in New York.
MJL, WB, IF: [Laugh.]
EM: I remember in New York the dancers jokingly referring to "P.M.S" - repeated performances as Parents, Mice Soldiers. I guess when you're playing a Soldier it's not quite the same as being in the corps of La Bayadère or Giselle. They get to joke around a little. Does your orchestra have any buzzwords or in jokes about doing all these performances?
WB: Every individual has their own approach. As Michael said, there's a responsibility to the little kids out there.
IF: I could tell you one funny thing. When I was with Irv all those years, he would get quite bored, and he would think of ways to keep his attention going. One year he had planned a vacation to Puerto Rico, so I would turn the page and see a beautiful picture of a beach and aqua-colored water. That's kind of how it got him through. Me, too.
EM: It keeps it interesting. As great as the music is, at times it can get really repetitive. You need a little something to change it up.
WB: I always look forward when a new oboe player or flutist comes in to hearing how they're going to play, what they're going to sound like, how it affects the orchestra. It's a distraction but in a positive way. I have different stand partners, and we always move around. We never sit in the same place. Ingrid moves around a lot, which is great. So it's different every time we play with a new stand partner. Unlike Michael, who has to sit with the same people.
EM: Tell me about your conductor, Emil de Cou. I wrote about him recently (/seattle/article/Pacific-Northwest-Ballet-Steps-Forth-with-BRIEF-FLING-20161024).
MJL: He's our music director and principal conductor. He's fantastic. I don't know what it was like before Emil, but I can tell you he is really one of the best conductors I've ever played under. He has an amazing clarity, which as you know you really need in the pit. For ballet, where the tempo can change depending who's up there, you need someone who's exceptionally clear in addition to being a fantastic musician.
EM: Ballet is much more strict than opera, with all its rhythmic changes. With dance it has to be strictly in tempo.
IF: Emil is also extremely energetic, and that really helps because there's a certain point where you just think, am I going to make it through. Having someone stand up there and have all this energy is important.
EM: That's what separates the great ones. The conductor reflects all the energy coming from the physical movement on the stage. What about former Nutcracker productions? You've all played the Stowell/ Sendak before the Balanchine. Bill, you've played the one before that, the Lew Christensen.
WB: I seem to recall that one was more classically oriented.
EM: Even if you don't see everything that's going on onstage, do you still get a sense of liking certain things about a given production, or do you not feel that much of a difference in atmosphere between productions?
WB: When you start something new there's always a change in your mind set as to how you approach it. But what we get and produce to the audience comes from Emil. We rely on him. If he's more excited about something, then we play that way. That's what good communication between a musician and a pit conductor is. If we get a bad conductor, that does the opposite.
EM: A good conductor has to be a good communicator. Michael, can you see some of what's going on?
MJL: You can't really see the dancing, just little glimpses. Mainly it's kind of fun to see bits of the new sets and costumes. It's also exciting to see how the audiences has responded. With the Balanchine last year it was overwhelmingly positive. Then there's always the fear that, oh, we've been doing the Sendak for 25, 30 years and how's the audience going to respond to changing something that's been such a part of the fabric of their holiday experience. But it was great. Everyone seemed really excited. I heard so many positive comments from audience members, how much they loved this new-for-us production.
WB: There are a few parents, mothers especially, who say, "I grew up with the Sendak. I wanted my daughter to experience what I grew up with."
EM: Is it true that some people decorate the pit? I can't quite picture that.
WB: [Laughs] It's Tom. He's the decorator. He absolutely loves doing it.
EM: What kinds of things?
WB: Strings of lights that have thematic material, he hangs all around the music stand. So each stand has its own thematic representation.
IF: Any kind of decorative thematic light that you can imagine. For example, our acting principal violist, Betty. Her stand gets Betty Boop lights [Laughs].
MJL: Our tuba player is a big Green Bay Packers fan, so Tom puts Packers lights around his music stand. Of course as soon as the show starts, those lights come off.
GT: It builds over the run. He's got several hundred different string lights. You can say, "Do you have alligators?" and he'll say, "Well, as a matter of fact I do."
EM: No wonder it's so much fun. The Pink Panther, how did he do that?
GT: That was during the "Nutty Nut" performances that happened once a year during the Stowell/Sendak production. Usually the Christmas Eve performance. The dancers and orchestra took some liberties - to put it mildly [Laughs].
IF: Tom found this Pink Panther outfit you could only get in London. My sister is a cellist there. She had to go get it and mail it here. One of the dancers wore it a few times.
WB: The music is hilarious. Tom did most of the arrangements. Often it became part of what was on stage. The Pink Panther comes out and we play [Sings theme] and it fits in with whatever we're playing, rhythmically and harmonically - a musical joke. And Emil keeping a straight face.
GT: The snow scene there would be an enormous amount of snow. They'd empty the snow bags, there'd be this huge downfall. The dancers would throw it at each other. The audience just loved it.
EM: And there's also food themes?
IF: One of the cellists is brilliant at coming up with a theme for the whole season and subthemes for each performance. Each section brings food to go along with that. People become extremely creative [Laughs]. Our bass section, four guys, all good cooks, it was a Nutcracker cadaver [Laughs]. All the organs were edible. I couldn't eat it.
WB: Sausages were the entrails.
IF: It gets pretty elaborate. Mike, you've done yours several times. Korean food.
MJL: Not since the Balanchine, where I have to play the solo [Laughs]. When it's the second violins I don't eat lunch that day. I know it's going to be good.
IF, WB, GT: [Laugh.]
MJL: I need to talk to my section.
EM: Let's touch on the Overture. Arguably it's the most difficult to play of Tchaikovsky's three iconic ballet overtures, especially for the violins: very delicate and exposed passagework high up in the range, with no brass to hide behind. Do you think you get appropriate credit for playing this piece?
MJL: I've never thought of it that way, but I do always appreciate the audience reaction to it. There's often quite a bit of applause after the overture, and you can feel the love from the audience, which is nice. They acknowledge our role in the production. They're proud to have a ballet orchestra like ours.
WB: Having been there before you, I felt the orchestra when we first started was tolerated. Now we're part of the family of the Ballet. It's not just dancers and a bunch of people down in the pit. It's the orchestra and the dancers and dressers. It's a family thing, an entity within itself. When they go to New York we go with. We really appreciate that. It really feels good to be a part of that inclusion. And the audience does like the orchestra.
IF: At one point when we were starting they wouldn't even mention the orchestra in reviews. People had to ask the papers to please at least say we're part of the performance.
WB: That there's an orchestra. Live music.
EM: Things have changed, then.
WB: A lot. I think Emil has a lot to do with that, and the management now, the change in artistic directors. Everything is very nice to be a part of.
GT: The orchestra also came to us and said, "We want to have a presence at the table. We want to make sure we're doing as much as we can to support the organization, and the organization is acknowledging the orchestra. It's something that makes this organization special. They're coming to see Nutcracker with a LIVE orchestra.
WB: Here, we have our own orchestra, which nationwide can be somewhat unique.
EM: Indeed. I can see that Nutcracker is going to be loads of fun and not to be missed. Thank you all so much.
PNB performs Balanchine's The Nutcracker at McCaw Hall Nov. 25 through Dec. 28 (https://www.pnb.org/Nutcracker/).
Photos credits: Lindsay Thomas, Rodger Burnett, Angela Sterling