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Communique: City Ballet Orchestra Cracks Tchaikovsky | "A Carolina Nutcracker"

City Ballet of Wilmington
City Ballet of Wilmington Orchestra

The audience's focus at a performance of The Nutcracker is on the stage...the dancers, the costumes, the masks and scenic design.  But City Ballet of Wilmington presents "A Carolina Nutcracker" with a live orchestra and treble choir. What's it like for the musicians tucked away in the pit with Tchaikovsky's fiendishly difficult score?

City Ballet Orchestra's conductor, Alex Hill, and principal flutist, Amanda Hoke, have a lot to say about the music. Listen above and find our extended conversation below.

A Carolina Nutcracker is onstage at CFCC Wilson Center in downtown Wilmington on Saturday, December 1st at 7:00pm (followed by a gala reception) and Sunday, December 2nd at 3:00pm. Over 100 dancers, 50 musicians, and a dozen voices bring this unique Nutcracker to life. The Sugar Plum Fairy is performed by Jan Burkhard and Drosselmeyer by Adam Chavis, both from Raleigh's Carolina Ballet.

Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Flutist Amanda Hoke & Conductor Alex Hill messing around at WHQR

Alex:      You know, the principal flute part is dastardly throughout.  

Amanda:   That’s a good word, can you say that on the air?

Gina: You say it is dastardly?

Alex:      Absolutely.           

Amanda: I always just assumed Tchaikovsky didn't like the flute, you know, he wrote the hardest part for the flute because he didn't like the instrument. Which I've heard that about a lot of composers. Mozart, Tchaikovsky … The flute parts are really hard.

Alex:      Okay, so here's a question. So, I don't think Tchaikovsky liked conductors much at all either. Because you listen to Tchaikovsky and you think it's one way until you get the music in your hand. And then he sets things off on different beats. So what sounds like it ought to be beat one is actually beat four. And that messes with your mind. It messes with how you conduct it, because you want to give up a big melodic starting point, a downbeat, but it's not a downbeat. It's an upbeat going to a down ... And part of that may be because of the way the Russian language works, you know, Slavic languages, music by Slavic composers is different because the language is different. But Tchaikovsky is odd that way.

Gina:      If the language is different, the mind is different.

Alex:      And it's a different mindset. Yep. Yep.

Gina:      Now, so he didn't like the flute, he didn't like the conductor ... did Tchaikovsky like anybody?

Alex:      He loved the ballet. And that was an acquired taste for him because ballet up through about 1870 was not good music. So a lot of those composers that wrote ballets and the 1850s and 60s that you've never heard of before, it's because it wasn't considered a place for serious composers until Coppelia by Delibes. And then, Tchaikovsky heard Coppelia and said, this is awesome. I want to do this. And so he began composing for the ballet and became quite enamored of writing for ballet. He loved dancers.

Amanda: Then you have Stravinsky, then you have all these other ...

Alex:      Who probably wouldn't have existed without Tchaikovsky. Exactly. Exactly.

Gina:      Focusing on the flute for a moment. The flute in the whole score of the nutcracker, what do you think is the most joyful thing as a flutist and what is, what is the most difficult?

Amanda: I knew you were going to ask me that question. Probably the joyful part would be the, I would say the Mirlitons. Whenever we get to play full force as a, as a complete section in harmony.

Alex:      A trio of flutes. It's beautiful.

Amanda: Yes. And it's, it's the most beautiful thing, I think in the whole thing. The most difficult thing. Oh, the entire thing. Is that is that possible to have the entire thing? I would probably say the Snowflake variation. Yeah. Because flutes are not used to playing on the off beats at all. And so that's, that's one of the things that we do in that, that number that makes it really difficult. Would you add to that Alex?

Alex:      I would agree. And I think it's funny that the, one of the most beautiful parts of the nutcracker visually and musically is the Waltz of the Snowflakes and its, in the pit, I don't think I would be overestimating to say it's really sheer terror for everybody in the pit because there's nothing the conductor can do to make it better because it's a waltz, so it's all on one beat per measure. And everybody, like Amanda was saying, plays on these weird offbeats and it's full of syncopation, it's full of hemiola. It's full of cross accents throughout the orchestra. And it's about one half a beat away from falling apart all the time, so when you, when you're playing it, you know the audience is just looking at this beautiful snow and then it starts snowing, and it's like this is magical--and we're all down there just sweating bullets throughout the piece. Which is what makes it kind of fun because we know the travail that we all must go through to make beautiful art happen.

Amanda: I would say second up would probably be the Chinese dance and it's not because it's hard, it's just because you have to shift your focus and say, okay, I'm going to play that scale correctly. And you're all by yourself again, and all you have is the bassoons behind you just thumping out a good pace. And then it's all you from the beginning to the end pretty much.

Alex:      And Andrea pitched an idea recently, as the choreographer, when you have live music, you can do things, you know. I mean you, you do not restricted to the recording. So she wanted to maybe lengthen Chinese and she at one point considered, could we do a repeat? Could we double it? Double the length and I said, I don't know that the bassoons would be able to--because they play without a rest. Without a breath. I mean they have to sneak a breath in somewhere, but the whole time they just play and pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop over and over again for 32 measure straight without stop.

Gina:      Perhaps you could get another instrument to step in for them.

Alex:      You know, I considered that.

Amanda: The harp?

Alex:      Or the cellos or something to, you know, to double it. But she decided not to lengthen it. It's fine.

Gina:      So at least not this year,

Alex:  Not this year.

Gina:      To me when, when,I've played it with, played some Nutcracker music with a group, the thing that I found hard is that it's really fast. Is that, is that just me? Am I just slow?

Alex:      No, there's a lot of really fast. There's a lot of figure work in this. It's very virtuosic for all the instruments.

Amanda: Yeah, I would agree. Alex does a great job of keeping us together. He really does

Alex:      Herding cats. No, not really [laughter] I think that's one of the things that's nice about working with professional musicians is you're really just there to be a kind of a ringleader and a motivator and to say let's all play together. And it's very much a team. And you know, that's hard in a pit, too, because everybody's spread out quite a bit. So hearing everybody is difficult. But this is now the fourth year with virtually 95 percent of this orchestra has been the same every year, which means they grow together as an ensemble with this piece and it's a little bit of a reunion when they come back together each year to play the nutcracker. So there's a lot of joy from that.

Gina:      As the conductor, what is your favorite piece in terms of the sound that's coming out, the piece that you might actually be distracted by because of the beauty of it?

Alex:      Hmm, distracted ... I get pretty distracted I think in Russian, the Russian dance, which is nice because it's probably good that it's only like a minute and a half long because it's so much fun to hear everybody play. But the other thing that's really exciting about that is as a conductor, I can sense the joy that the musicians have, and I can see just over the lip of the stage, I can see the dancers, which for the Russian dance has always very joyful. I can sense the growing excitement behind me in the audience so that as we get to the end of the Russian dance, there's a little section there, a little cellorondo or little stringendo that Tchaikovsky has instructed us to let it just kind of speed up a little bit. So it generates this great sense of excitement in the last 16 bars and as it releases, you can hear the audience usually spontaneously explode a little bit because of the joy of that music. So that's a lot of fun.

Gina:      Now when you're in the pit, you can't see much.

Amanda: Yeah, exactly.

Gina:      Tell me about that experience of playing in, in a pit.

Amanda: So I'm used to playing in pits and not being able to see, but it makes it a little bit more tricky to be expressive, I would say. As a musician is a thoughtful musician, I think it's always helpful to see what's going on on stage.

Alex:      Well, I hadn't thought about it until you asked that question. I can't really act out. Obviously that would be a little cheesy, but really the conductor has to do a little bit of that, of saying, you know, the music, all music tells a story. Even if you can't see the literal story on the stage. We, as performers, always have to think about, well, what am I saying in this melody, what is my line saying. And it may be an abstract thought like, well it's three bars of crescendo and then a release, but everything, even abstract music--now this is very, very much not abstract music because there's a story, a visual story happening--but for the players in the pit like a symphony or a concerto, it may not have a specific story, but every player has to imagine, what am I saying in this melody? Or what am I doing here?

Amanda: I think that's why the conductor is so important because he's the linchpin between the dancers and the orchestra and that synergy really comes together with what the conductor is trying to get us to do. And he, since he sees the stage and we can't, he tries to bring out of us what he would like to see the dancers dance to.

Gina:      And there's so much of it in art and in particularly in music and in dance, that's abstract. Even if it's not abstract and if it is abstract within it's abstract squared, You're absorbing what you're seeing on the stage and the audience's energy is coming at you from behind, and you're actually there physically. And then you are with your eyes and your hands you are giving it in a metaphysical, invisible, magical way to the orchestra. And they can feel what's going on.

Amanda: He's a Jedi knight.

Alex:      And this is what I've told people too, who maybe going to the ballet is not something they do regularly. So ballet is, like you just said, it's very abstract and a lot of ways it's an acquired taste like opera. So it's unapproachable for some people. The ballet is. When you play a ballet with live music, I've sometimes told the uninitiated, don't worry, you could come to this just to hear the orchestra play Tchaikovsky for two hours. Because even if you didn't see what was happening on the stage and even though it's a narrative score, but Tchaikovsky was also very much a classicist and a craftsman. So every section of that score is a delightful little musical vignette. A musical miniature that all put together makes a story. But there are some delightful moments that you could just listen and enjoy the language of music.

Gina:      if you don't like the music brings me earplugs and just watch the dance

Alex:      you've got. You've got a choice. And this has, of course, you know, the beauty of theatrical art like this is you've got beautiful lighting. You have incredible costumes. These are all period 1860s costumes. We have an incredible group of costume designers and builders. The scenery is beautiful, the choreography is beautiful. We haven't even talked about the Wilmington side of it, that the characters in the party scene in act one really are representing real historic persons from 1860s, Wilmington after the war, postwar Wilmington trying to put its life back together around the holidays. Instead of the Mother Ginger with the big dress, there's the carriage, what we call the carriage scene, where the carriage comes out with children, just like a horse and buggy in Wilmington. So there's a lot of neat historical details, too, that make it worth seeing.

Gina:      Amanda, did you have anything to say about this Nutcracker? Have you ever performed for another Nutcracker?

Amanda: I have. I have performed in the Knoxville Symphony. I did it when I was working on my master's degree. And it was different. It was more traditional. So this is a really special treat to be able to perform in something that is more local per se. I believe that that kind of gives it a special touch. And before I always felt like, you know, when I played it in other symphonies that it just was kind of like a Bam, Bam, Bam, go, and then we played it 10 times in a row and by the 10th time, you're just completely exhausted from it. But the energy from the orchestra and the camaraderie is so amazing. And I think just being able to say this is the Wilmington production of the Nutcracker makes it very special.

Gina:      So it has this local spin on it that it's set in post civil war, 1865?

Alex:      1865, right. So this would be the Bellamy family. Literally, we did the historical research that would have celebrated their first Christmas in the Bellamy Mansion in 1865 because for most of the warriors, they were not in Wilmington because of the war. And then the battle scene with the soldiers is actually a very threatening moment for young Ellen Bellamy, who was a real person who would have been about 13 years old in 1865, to see Union soldiers in her home. Because they would have occupied her home through most of 1865 when the Union came up the Cape Fear River and took over Wilmington. Which was part of what led to the end of the war. So there's a lot of neat, real human drama that's involved in this particular story, but it's also a story of redemption. Which, it's kind of interesting to see how that plays out during the battle scene, which is really a pivotal, dramatic moment for the story.

Gina:      And in terms of the number of dancers that you have and the size of this production--

Alex:      It's a large group, over 100 dancers. And you know, I should mention too, the historical part really doesn't change the traditional part because Tchaikovsky really intended it as a family and the 1860s or 1870s. It's really just the names have changed. We've given Drosselmeyer a backstory which places him in Wilmington in 1865 in a logical way. So it's fully the traditional story of the nutcracker, but as you said, with very much a local flavor. And when you consider over 100 dancers and there's a chorus as well, so that involves another dozen singers, and 50 orchestral musicians.

Gina:      And that's rivaling New York City.

Alex:      Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And we saw there you had listed maybe an orchestra orchestra of 64, so maybe their pit in New York is just slightly larger than the one at the Wilson Center. Just slightly.

Gina:   But their players are smaller. [laughter]

Alex:   They have to be in New York, just the density of the population.

Gina:    I wouldn't mind hearing, like how many flutes, how many, if you, if you know that that might be hard to do, but how many flutes do you have?

Amanda: There are three flutes. There are two flutes and a Piccolo. And really the size of the woodwind section is quite large. So in addition to the three flutes, we have two oboes and an English horn, bassoons ...

Alex:      Two clarinets and a bass clarinet. So we would call that triple winds except for the bassoons. So tripled woodwinds, a full size brass section, which is two trumpets, three trombones, four horns, a Tuba And a partridge in a pear tree. And just a little bit of everything. In fact, that's for the percussionist, sue, have just a little touch of everything. The Celesta, which is an instrument that was invented--Tchaikovsky wrote for it for the first time in The Nutcracker. So the Sugar Plum Fairy variation was his experimentation with this little percussion keyboard instrument that plays on metal bars. It's a beautiful sound. "Heavenly," that's what Celesta means. A little heavenly sound.

And when we first did this with live orchestra, you'll find small ballet companies across the country often will perform this with a reduced orchestra because not everybody has a pet that holds a large enough orchestra. But my sense was, as a conductor, well, if I'm going to conduct Tchaikovsky, if we're going to play Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky really is meant to be heard with the full forces. He's, he's a fantastic orchestrator. He writes well for everybody, he writes in such a way that he uses all the colors of the orchestra in a very creative way. So you never get tired of it because he's constantly inventing new combinations. So it's just worth it to do it in the original form that Tchaikovsky intended.

Amanda: And we have a nice pit with the Wilson Center. So that's. We can add that in there. Yeah, yeah. They don't have the Wilson Center in New York city either. They do not. Exactly. We've got one better on them or to. Do you have all the details that you need? I believe so.

New Speaker:  It's Saturday at 7:00 and Sunday at 3:00. And there's a gala reception after the Saturday evening performance. we have two guest artists from the Carolina Ballet. Jan Burkhard is the Sugar Plum Fairy. She's a principal with Carolina Ballet. And Adam Chavis is now a retired from the Carolina ballet, but he was a soloist and he plays Drosselmeyer. And Drosselmeyer, you know, is often just a character role, but in our production he's quite involved as a dancer as well as a character.

Amanda: I think that's such a neat piece, with Drosselmeyer. That's really cool.

Alex: And that's another--Gina, I think you and I have talked about that earlier, maybe when we did Coppelia, which is another Hoffman story, that E.T.A. Hoffman wrote himself into every story. Drosselmeyer is E.T.A. Hoffman--sinister, weird, seems to be untrustworthy, and deeply magical. So all the action that unfolds, unfolds because he wills it to unfold. So when we first did this, we thought, well, it doesn't make any sense...in most ballets Drosselmeyers is an Act I eccentric character who disappears. We thought, he has to be continuous through the story because the story is propelled by him. Right? So in, in Hoffman's original story, it's Drosselmeyer that takes Nutcracker annd Marie, the young girl character, to the Kingdom of the Sweets and facilitates all that. But that's a topic for another day.