‘Nutcracker’ Time: Canned Music or the Real Deal?

America, that Nutcracker nation, is once again in top gear coast to coast cranking out versions of Tchaikovsky’s iconic old world ballet. Chances are you will see one and chances are that it will most likely be accompanied by recorded music. By far the majority of productions are presented by schools and their accompanying training programs. Usually strapped for money, the first thing that goes is the orchestra though even some pre professional productions like the one at West Side Ballet in Los Angeles have figured out a way to present their performances with an orchestra. This year the company performed with the Santa Monica College Symphony Orchestra accomplishing what even L.A.’s flagship ballet company Los Angeles Ballet has failed to do during recent seasons of performances at major venues: dump the canned music and give us the real deal.

Around the country professional regional companies will put up local productions, and many of them from North Dakota to Florida, and Virginia to Oregon will be performing with their local symphonic partners, offering the ballet as it was meant to be seen and heard. It’s not only ‘The Nutcracker’ that has suffered from the absence of music. Many major touring companies from the U.S. and Europe regularly perform works choreographed to large scale symphonic scores with canned music. Once unthinkable, it is now more or less the norm. Companies such as Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Preljocaj Ballet and others have all performed on recent U.S. tours using exclusively recorded music.

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The opening for strings alone from the ‘Nutcracker’ Overture

While financial concerns are clearly limiting, there is more at stake here than simple economics. For a society that increasingly gets its music via TV, earbuds, or the speakers on desktop computers, people are quickly losing the ability to tell the difference and even care that much about what they are missing. The general tactic with recorded music for dance has been to elevate the volume as a simple replacement for the absence of live music. This gives audiences a false idea about what the music actually sounds like. For a score like ‘The Nutcracker’ for example, the whole of the opening overture  is played mostly by the string section at pianissimo, piano and mezzo forte levels, occasionally becoming louder in cadential endings and when there are special effects added by the horns or winds. That sonic universe is, for the most part, a quiet, intimate one. Yet in so many productions the overture blares out from banks of suspended speakers and never stops being too loud. Performances under those circumstances can end up feeling hard edged and exhausting to listen to.

But there are also other important and infrequently considered ethical issues with the use of recorded music. Nearly all companies using a recorded score fail to identify the orchestra, conductor, or label of the music they use.  It means for every performance that musicians are essentially being ripped off for their performances in ways that are clearly wrong and possibly inconsistent with basic licensing expectations. Generally speaking, it is dancers who often feel like least of those in the performing arts, frequently suffering from low pay, short careers, lack of basic safety considerations, and other performance indignities not usually experienced by musicians. But when it comes to the music many companies seem perfectly willing to appropriate it for their own needs without much consideration. One professional Southern California ballet company has even gone so far as to use an uncredited commercial recording and remaster it to suit their performance needs. In the end, for many artistic directors and choreographers, the important differences between live and recorded music just don’t seem to matter enough.

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‘Snow’ Act I with Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo : photo by Julie Campbell

Brian Asher Alhadeff is one conductor who has brought live music for ‘Nutcracker’ to two California ballet companies. He has developed a calculated and ingenious plan with Opera San Luis Obispo, Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo and State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara to put in place a contract orchestra to play on back to back weekends for a series of performances and school programs. Filling out the list of contributing organizations are The Morro Bay High School Choruses who supply the singers for the atmospheric choral section in “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in Act I. Organized under a five year plan, his scheme has given both companies the boost of live music for their performances while efficiently managing a fully professional orchestra and its performance and rehearsal schedule. He has been a real advocate for music for both dance and opera, and his contributions for restoring live music to ‘Nutcracker’ performances are worth copying and exporting.

Asher Alhadeff’s plan wouldn’t be the success it is without the adventuresome participation of both of Andrew Silvaggio and Rodney Gustafson, the artistic directors in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. Until four years ago, those companies had, between them, performed more than 60 seasons of the ballet exclusively with recorded music. Together they have created a domino effect of improved ticket sales, with added sponsors and underwriters that are drawn to supporting the orchestra. It costs money to have an orchestra, of course, but the model continues to pare down those costs while at the same time building new audiences. This year The Santa Maria Philharmonic Society became another partner with Asher Alhadeff and his Opera San Luis Obispo Grand Orchestra adding four school performances of an abridged “Nutcracker for Kids”. They will be returning next year to continue building that program. All of it represents an incredibly bright spot not only for a ballet whose exceptional music is so often overlooked and under-appreciated, but also for the communities, dancers, and musicians involved.

Against this backdrop, major companies continue with exceptional productions that measure up to the highest standards for what the ballet should look and sound like. American Ballet Theatre will now bring its spectacular version with the Pacific Symphony to Costa Mesa, California annually. San Francisco Ballet and their exceptional resident orchestra fill December with great performance and music at the War Memorial Opera House with their American version of the ballet set in San Francisco.

But the main benefit of the many schools who present ‘The Nutcracker’ remains unchanged. Those performances function as an important outlet for pre professional dancers and training programs giving their students an opportunity to get inside big time ballet by being part of full scale theatrical productions. It remains the most familiar portal into the ballet world for both young dancers and audiences alike. It’s time to move the paradigm for the “The Nutcracker” phenomenon forward and give the music its due.

(The term Nutcracker nation comes from Jennifer Fisher’s book about the ballet published by Yale University Press. Dr. Brian Asher Alhadeff is the conductor and Artistic Director with Opera San Luis Obispo.)

2 responses to “‘Nutcracker’ Time: Canned Music or the Real Deal?

  1. Great article, Steven. Live music adds a whole other demension to the dance experience. It does, however, come with its challenges, especially with the Nutcracker which has a few sections that might prove difficult for a community orchestra. In one production that I was involved with, the first violins had intonation problems with some of the high notes, and tempos in the faster pieces tended to be a tad slow to accommodate the playing abilities of the orchestra. That said, it was a positive experience and if we could have afforded to continue with the orchestra, those issues could have been worked out. Real artistry needs the richness, freshness and spontaneity that only live musicians can provide.

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    • Thanks, Tom. This story was about one solution for putting up live music for the orchestras and ballet companies involved. Others will have to find unique solutions that suit their individual limitations and expectations. I hope having a working example will encourage them to make the effort.

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