Now that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, we can go about enjoying the comfortin traditions of the holiday season, and for many that means taking in a production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Beginning on Thursday, November 29 and running through Sunday, December 2, The Cleveland Orchestra and The Joffrey Ballet will present five performances of this holiday classic at the State Theatre in Playhouse Square.
The Nutcracker, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with music by Tchaikovsky, is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, as adapted by Alexandre Dumas. The ballet was premiered in December, 1892 in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre. Given the popularity it now enjoys, it is interesting to note that at the time of its premiere, the ballet was not considered a success. In her book Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, Jennifer Fisher notes the many problems both critics and audiences had with the production. However, in general Tchaikovsky's music fared much better and was described by one critic as "astonishingly rich in inspiration". "It is interesting to read the history of the ballet, because it is true, the music really did save it", says conductor Tito Munoz who will lead this weekend's performances. "I do think [the score] is some of Tchaikovsky's best music."
Today, many of us do not remember a time when The Nutcracker was not being performed during the holidays, however it was not until December 24, 1944 that the ballet received its first complete performance in the United States. This weekend's performances are also historic. "This is the first time that The Cleveland Orchestra is playing the entire score," Munoz points out, "so I am pretty excited about that." Like so many, Munoz too grew up with the piece. Though he has previously conducted the Joffrey production in Chicago and on tour in St. Louis, he says there is still not a part of the ballet he does not like -- although he does have a couple of favorites. "The one place I think is really great, and I try to imagine myself being at the premiere, is the Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy, and the reason is the celesta. It is one of the very first times the instrument was introduced to the world. It had just been invented and Tchaikovskyheard it and he wanted to be the first person to use it in an orchestral context. I'm sure that people were wondering what it was that they were hearing playing those sounds. Tchaikovsky was beat out by somebody else, but certainly he was the first famous composer to write for it. Also, for me the first appearance of the nutcracker when it turns into a live person, that's always a wonderful moment."
How does a ballet conductor interface with the choreographyer, dancers and musicians? "Of course it depends on the piece. For example, last season I conducted a production with The Cleveland Orchestra and the Miami City Ballet in Miami. It included a couple of Balanchine works as well as a premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's choreography set to Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. In that instance there was a lot of dialogue between myself and the choreographer. I was able to offer some insight as to what is normally done with that piece musically as a symphonic work."
Given he has conducted the production in the past, this time around should be a bit easier. "Two years ago I spent about a week with the company during the piano rehearsals", Munoz recalls, "just to be there and observe as well as spending some time conducting the rehearsal pianist to get a feel for the tempos, get a chance to do it with somebody following you and get the trust of the dancers. And since I have conducted it before, this time I will only need to spend about one day with them."
Munoz has a lot of fun conducting ballet, although he admits it comes with its own language. "Learning how dancers do what they do and having to translate that to the orchestra has been an interesting learning experience for me." Munoz views these performances as a perfect culmination to the previous collaborations between The Cleveland Orchestra and The Joffrey Ballet at Blossom. "To get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky's music performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, who have never performed the entire score before, I do think this is a great collaborative fit. I think it's going to be very exciting."
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