When I first learned The Nutcracker a few years back, it took many hours a day over the summer to really understand the piece and to understand how I would need to conduct to give the orchestra musicians what THEY need to play their best. Now, after conducting it over 20 times between rehearsals and performances, it takes only a few hours to get the piece back in my head.
I’ll never forget my first rehearsal with the orchestra. I asked them, “Who has played this work before?” and nearly every hand went up. Great. I’m supposed to ‘lead’ people when they’ve all done it and yet it’s my FIRST time?? Talk about baptism by fire. Well, these are very kind and VERY professional musicians who played their parts well and allowed me to take musical liberties where the music calls for it—and even offered some suggestions along the way. They didn’t have to be, but they were gracious with their praise when things went well.
Now conducting an orchestra is one thing, but leading an orchestra while following a dancer’s tempo? Think about it. Let’s say the orchestra has to play a loud chord as the dancer is finishing a move, marked by some snappy arm motion. The conductor has to be able to accurately guess how quickly the dancer will move through the motion, because he has to cue the orchestra and in one preparatory motion, communicate to the orchestra how fast to play, how loud to play, and how long to play. Phew. Gotta admit—I LOVE the challenge of lining up our music to the beautiful choreography on stage.
Our musicians have also had years of experience with this work, and they will tell you—it’s not easy. The problem is that it SOUNDS easy, and the average listener may not realize the complexities or technical demands necessary to make it so. They, too, have spent many hours when they learned their parts for the first time (to say nothing of the hours spent to get their playing abilities at this level!)—and they, too, can quickly get the work back in their fingers.
But just knowing our individual parts is not enough. We also have to play along with each other. That skill requires that they watch a conductor, and listen to each other while they play. It’s the ultimate in multitasking. Problems can arise when the pit is too spread apart (which ours is) resulting in some sections of the orchestra not being able to hear the others. So, we rely on monitors in the far ends of the pit, audible only to the players in those areas so they can ear to the other side of the orchestra.
My friend, Scott Speck, is the conductor for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. When I was first learning the piece, I asked him for advice which he generously gave. When I was done with my first run, I was hooked on conducting ballet and asked what ballet should I learn next? And he replied that as good as many of the others are, they pale in comparison to the beauty of the Nutcracker.
And that is why, at the end of each performance as I close the score, I wonder where in the world did those last two hours go?