Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Nutcracker (Updated 12/23/12)

The Nutcracker. For the purposes of this discussion, when I refer to the Nutcracker, I mean the full-length ballet. I played my first Nutcracker in 1979, for a local dance company. When I got my job with the now-defunct SJ Symphony, I started on a lifelong love/hate relationship with the Nutcracker. This is really wonderful music, well crafted, FULL of passion and emotion. It’s fun to play, and really enjoyable to hear. I sat down this year and tried to calculate exactly how many times I have played the Nutcracker. I AM fond of saying, “I’ve played the Nutcracker over 600 times.” I played 3 in 1979 & 1980; I’ll add these six in later on. Starting 1981, Pat O’Gara hired me to play the Nutcracker at the Flint Center with, I believe, The Peninsula Dance Theater. This was 6 or 7 performances. Also, we did a weekend at the CPA with the SJ Dance Theater. My recollection is that this was 5 or 6. It seems to me this went on through the early 90’s. So figure 12 a year for 12 years, 144. In the late 80’s the Cleveland Ballet did a co-venture in San Jose, calling themselves the San Jose/Cleveland Ballet. In Cleveland, they were the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. In the early years, we started right around Thanksgiving and ended at Xmas Eve. So I believe we did between 20 & 30 Nutcrackers a year. Figure 25 for 10 years (250), then the numbers dwindled to today’s 14. We’ve done 14 for about 10 years (140). I have done some in SF with that GREAT Ballet Orchestra (around 10), a few in Sacto, when Mark Wolfe was the tubist (about 5) and a run in Modesto (6). Added 12/23/12 - Since this blog was written (2008) there have been a few changes. Lets add 48 (12 x 4 years) to the total. This year (2012) there has been some upheaval in Ballet San Jose. Dennis Nahat is out, Dwight Oltman (the stick) is also gone. One of the premiere ballerinas of our time (Karen Gabay) has choreographed the entire ballet. We are playing the music as written (minus Mirlitons) and it is shorter, 2:05 by my reckoning. Not counting the countless times I have played the Ballet SUITE or ANY rehearsals the number is (including the 6 in LA) 609.
Here are some Nutcracker stories: One year, my music disappeared. I have a set of low brass parts for the ballet, but OUR Nutcracker isn’t THE Nutcracker. Not only are there cuts and jumps all around the work, but also right in the middle, we play “Capriccio Italien.” And near the end, instead of playing the real Nutcracker music, we put in the Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin.” This is not a problem for me, because anyone who really KNOWS me knows that I use the Nutcracker to catch up on reading all my motorcycle magazines. Yes, it is true; I can play the Grand Pas de Deux while reading “Easyriders.” I needed to miss a few services so poor Vicki had to come up with a part. We (she) called the old Cleveland Ballet librarian to see if SHE had a part; she did. So we got their part and my sub had something to read. We have since put together a really nice part that I use to hold up my magazines. 
In the old days, we used to play AM student matinees (now they use a tape). Once some students started throwing frozen grapes into the pit. One of them hit Joanne Tanner’s violin and cracked the top. Another time, the little darlings started throwing quarters into the pit; Phil’s horn got hit. We had to activate the Players’ Committee and Bob Havlice, Ed Church and VOODY (IATSE stagehands) came up with this pit cover to protect us. It had a big HOLE where the conductor (Dwight) stood. So only he’d get pelted. It was good protection, but it got hot as hell down there; I started bringing a fan.
In our Nutcracker, during the fight scene between the rats & soldiers, our crew uses R/C mice that scurry all over the stage. How those dancers DON’T step on those damned things, I’ll never know. Well one year, for some reason there was a bit of radio interference, and the mice went out of control. Those things were running all over the CPA stage. At one point, several of them came FLYING into the pit. One went right over my head and landed on the timps. One of the heads was damaged and it scared the heck out of us as it got caught on the tuning handle and the wheels kept running producing a rather unique rolling sound.
I was telling one of my students about the number of Nutcrackers I have played and he asked, “How can you stand it?” I point to my BMW 335i and say, “See that car? The Nutcracker bought me that.” “Ahhhhh. NOW I get it,” was his reply.
I had a GREAT time playing "Nutcracker" this year (2012). We are playing the score as intended, the orchestra sounds great and I have a new clean part that is really legible. PLUS the pit is set up differently. With the horns moved, I can hear our wonderful woodwind section. I complain a lot about the Nutcracker, but really, I am SO lucky to be making a living playing the tuba.  I thank God each night that I have managed to make a good life and career out of music. The business has been good to me. The “Grand Pas de Deux” is STILL in, Grrrrrr.....


  1. I always feel like I've been missing out on a huge part of the musician experience because I've never played Nutcracker. How weird is that?!

    (PS: Do you want anything from Germany while I'm here?)

  2. My Nutcracker experience this year was at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium where the boiler went belly up. I brought handwarmers, but I was still freezing the whole time. We also had various objects falling into the pit, mostly on the violas. Hmm... Were they aiming?

  3. Tony,
    IF Ariel brings back Chocolate, we will be worse than the Nutcracker Mice! Hope your are going to Share!!
    On another Note, is the Nutcracker Ballet in your personal opinion classify as "Christmas" Music?

  4. "Nutcracker" as Xmas Music? Hmm, not really. Even though the story takes place in Elizabethan England at Xmas time, I don't see anything innately Xmas-y about the music.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. A couple of years ago, I was asked to play Nutcracker with one of the regional orchestras in the area. 1 rehearsal, 8 performances. They wouldn't let you sub out for even one service. So I had to regretfully turn them down.

    1. Steve, I hope you get a chance to play it. It is really a fun part to play.