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Nutcracker a tough nut for orchestra, too

Classical ballet has a sound, too, and the orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet gives 'The Nutcracker' its magic.

The orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
The orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet.Read more

Quite possibly the longest solo in The Nutcracker — and certainly the heaviest lift — isn’t one that’s danced. It’s played. Coming just before the Christmas-tree-growing scene, this patch of music rises up like a moody movement from a violin concerto in the middle of a ballet.

The Nutcracker is like that. What emanates from the orchestra pit is every bit as responsible for the atmosphere and deeply felt emotion as anything you will see on stage.

Classical ballet is a sound, too, and the orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet, led by Beatrice Jona Affron and heard in the company’s second of two performances Sunday, does a quite decent job with Tchaikovsky’s famous score. Sometimes it achieves something a great deal more than decent.

This music is heard so often many begin to unlisten with the first overplayed sound of a Sugar Plum Fairy celesta or buttercream horns layered like petals in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” It becomes a different experience, though, in context, where the dance, pantomime, and confectionary scenery and costumes echo and magnify one another.

It’s ironic that the Pennsylvania Ballet is trying to extend the Nutcracker “brand” this season by infusing the Academy of Music lobby with a signature candylike corporate scent (a scent, by the way, that was undetectable to me and my young companion Sunday).

If the troupe is looking to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art) — to frame the fragrance question in its most artistically charitable terms — it’s already right there in the work of George Balanchine and Tchaikovsky (fragrance-free).

About that violin solo

That violin solo, by the way, is an interloper. Weighing in at nearly seven minutes, it has some of the same musical material that accompanies the tree-growing and was originally intended not for The Nutcracker but for The Sleeping Beauty. It travels nearly the entire emotional range of the violin.

Soloist Blake Espy captured all of its sweetness, heroism, and vulnerability (he nailed those whistle-high notes near the end). Best of all, he had charisma.

The fact that he wasn’t the only one gets to the heart of why it’s important to note the orchestra and revisit why it’s there.

Not every ballet company uses a live orchestra, and, though there are improvements and enhancements to strive for on behalf of this one, it is powerful for its size. The violins (at just a baker’s dozen) need to generate better sound — both the quantity and quality — and the violas sometimes lacked muscle. The Pennsylvania Ballet could spring for a few more of each.

But the quality is high generally. Geoffrey Deemer’s English horn had heft, and Brian Kuszyk’s trumpet dash. Martha Koeneman’s celesta carried just the right grade of silvery fairy dust. About 30 voices from the Philadelphia Boys Choir had a lovely, pure quality — secure but airy.

There’s lots to admire in the way Affron handles the score, even if her freedom-of-tempo must answer to the dance first. I wondered though, whether both dance and music were well served by a quickness in the “Coffee” section that drained away much of the mystery.

Elsewhere, instrumentalists and dancers formed synergistic links. Costumes, too. In “Tea,” the sprightly orchestra and spring-action tension of dancer Zecheng Liang conspired to great joy with designer Judanna Lynn’s psychedelic Peter Max-like costume for the dancer. I wish the emotional mountain had been realized more powerfully in the expanding Christmas tree scene. Both the tree and ensemble need more oomph.

One quibble regarding the way the ballet company thinks about the place of its orchestra: It’s nice that, along with the dancers, Espy got credit in the program for his solo work. The orchestra personnel, though, are listed far back in the book (dead last, in fact, among pages of artistic Who’s Who.) For his recent debut as music director at the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nezet-Seguin brought the orchestra up on stage for curtain calls.

Smart. The reality is, without a living, breathing orchestra to spin the Nutcracker magic into action, Balanchine, whose name gets billing above the title, would be little known beyond the dance mavens. And of those, there would be many fewer.

The Pennsylvania Ballet will perform “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., tickets: $39-$184; information: There will be a special sensory-friendly performance for children on the autism spectrum at noon, Dec. 27.