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Worthy Tradition 

by Michael Bowen

One of the bad things about traditions is that we tend to forget the reasons that we celebrate them. The ballet The Nutcracker is a perfect example of this. Every year, in countless holiday ads, we see little girls asleep with oversized wooden soldiers in their arms. We hear the tinkly music that even little kids recognize. Thousands of families even attend performances of The Nutcracker, some to see older sisters dancing for the first time in front of an audience, others simply because attending is something their family has always done.

But while most people can recognize that The Nutcracker is a part of the winter holidays, most people don't bother examining the work more closely. Many music aficionados even dismiss the ballet's music as "superficial," and dance snobs turn up their noses at the stage-fulls of children that a production usually involves.

These reactions are almost traditions in themselves. You either love The Nutcracker -- because it's just something that you do -- or you hate it -- also because it's just something you do. It's like caroling and spending too much money on gifts: Nobody thinks about it, they just do it. That's what traditions are for.

But there's a reason that The Nutcracker is as popular as it is, and those who attend performances, like the gala affair that the Spokane Symphony will be presenting this weekend, should be reassured that it's OK to like The Nutcracker. In fact, even those who normally consider Tchaikovsky below their level of appreciation should attend the performance, and really listen to the music.

One of the first things that will strike audiences is that a performance of The Nutcracker is one of the best chances to hear the Spokane Symphony Orchestra perform -- not because it's a rare piece of music (it's not), or because a glamorous soloist is joining them (also not happening). Rather, The Nutcracker is a piece of music that the musicians in the orchestra have performed year after year. Whether they've been stationed in Spokane for a long time, or recently arrived, chances are that their holiday lineups as classically trained musicians have involved performing The Nutcracker.

Much of the music is written for the upper reaches of the orchestra, giving everything a magical lightness. When the lower strings play, they tend to be plucked, sounding impish and playful rather than dark and brooding. And when instruments like the low clarinets are featured, as they are in the dance for coffee, they sound exotic and bewitching rather than ominous and lugubrious. The most famous instrumental number in the ballet, "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy," features the celesta, which is a keyboard instrument that plays chimes rather than strings like a piano. Tchaikovsky was so excited to be using this new instrument that he had one sent to Russia in secret, hoping that his rival composers wouldn't discover its captivating sounds. But even if they had encountered the celesta, it's unlikely they could have written a better piece for the instrument.

Tchaikovsky himself didn't seem to think that the work would become as famous as it did. He had originally been commissioned to write music for a ballet based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who had written a collection of dark children's stories. But he turned down the opportunity on more than one occasion and finally agreed only after running out of reasons to say no. The world's most famous theatrical work about a dancing kitchen appliance at last was born.

But in the end, the remarkably simple music and enchanting story didn't satisfy Tchaikovsky, who wrote that he didn't like the ballet. Audiences agreed with him, and it was something of a disappointment at its premiere. Nevertheless, thanks to various choreographers and orchestras, The Nutcracker was discovered as a genuine modern classic in the middle of the 20th century (it received its North American premiere in 1944). Since then, countless little girls and boys have taken up ballet because of The Nutcracker, making it the ambassador of dance companies everywhere. And anyone who wants to encounter an orchestra arranged by one of the symphonic masters could hardly do better than attend a performance. Like a box of candy, or presents arrayed under a tree, The Nutcracker is a tradition because it deserves to be one. And if you haven't encountered it yet, you should treat yourself this year.

Publication date: 12/04/03

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