I will play my 1,000th performance of “The Nutcracker” with the NYC Ballet Orchestra on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. When I joined the company almost 30 years ago, they took one glance and correctly grasped that I did not belong in the dance corps, especially holding my giant bass fiddle. Turns out I had gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor. I was quickly dispatched down to the orchestra pit, and the ensuing decades have proven that this most fantastical of fairy ballets is the best gig a New York musician could hope for.
Tchaikovsky has given the world a unique gift. Yes, it’s one of the finest scores ever composed, but it’s also a job-creating rocket engine. There is no other piece of high art music that can equal its mass appeal – no opera, no symphony, no concerto, period. Those of us who recognize this greatness cherish it carefully and never fail to send our prayers of thanks to Mr. T for letting us be a part of it all. Being granted membership in the rarified 1,000 Times Club is an even higher honor, although unlike SNL, we don’t get smoking jackets and a clubhouse. I presume my creditors and similarly interested parties also send regular monthly appreciations when my checks clear. So do the many thousands of other dancers and musicians and their extended dynasties. Precious few composers in history can lay claim to a larger legacy, and if that’s not fairy magic, I don’t know what is. Our dearly bearded Peter Ilyich was a sensitive and emotionally fragile sort, and I often imagine him looking down at us, happy and thrilled knowing he continues to be “the greatest jobs composer that God ever created!”
Speaking of great gifts to the world, it was the balanced perfection and nuanced creativity of George Balanchine, the most renowned ballet choreographer of the 20th century, that brought us the quintessential 1954 staging of the deceptively simple E.T.A Hoffman fable. The Great American Nutcracker tradition actually started at the San Francisco Ballet in 1944, but it has altered its productions several times over the decades. Balanchine’s, in contrast, has remained almost exactly the same for a matchless run of 60-something years. My wife Kathleen was thrilled to discover that the pink and green costumes are just as she remembered when her grandmother took her as a small child. Like almost everyone, she was even more enchanted with the dancing snowflakes and the magnificent Christmas tree, which grows even taller than it did before the NYC Ballet moved from City Center to Lincoln Center in 1964. Incidentally, before it rises, the tree rests compressed and folded on a platform under the stage, right near where we store our bass trunks.
The choreography is supreme and constant, but the dancing is newly poetic every performance. Observing 1,000 interpretations has proven this to me. You may ask, what I am doing watching the stage when I should be watching the conductor? Let’s be brutally honest here: the dancers are much better looking. They bring their own personalities and strengths to the various roles. There is also the adventure of various debuts, which happen frequently. Occasionally there is an artistic triumph for the ages and the audience knows it. Watch closely to see if that happens when you come this year! Twenty years from now you can brag to your friends you were there, and I’ll vouch for you. (You are coming this year, aren’t you?) Some of my favorites from years past were Darcy Kistler, Damian Woetzel, Albert Evans, Heather Watts, Jock Soto, Lourdes Lopez, and my all-time favorite, the extraordinary Wendy Whelan. I saw her dance the Sugarplum Fairy dozens of times, and was continually amazed that she just never ever missed a single step, and every one was seemingly perfect! Let me tell you, that level of artistry is not humanly possible amongst us regular mortals. The current casts are also a big thrill and I’ve been around long enough to see them transition from young hopefuls into superstars. Tiler Peck has unbounded joy. The ethereal Sara Mearns floats the audience right up onstage to dance beside her. My current favorite, the inimitable virtuoso Ashley Bouder, does the inverse, practically leaping offstage into the aisle right in front of you. A couple of years ago, she danced when she was pregnant, and gleefully dared you to be shocked at the thought of an expectant fairy.
There are 50 roles for the super-talented children in the cast, another of Balanchine’s strokes of brilliance. They start rehearsing in September or October. I know this, because my son Craig was one of them some years back. I chauffeured him to the School of American Ballet from our Rockland County suburb every single day. To these dance-mad kids, getting chosen for the Nutcracker is akin to finding the golden ticket and inheriting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It follows that the children’s ballet mistress, Miss Abergel, who does the picking, exists as something of a godlike figure to them. As much as we could wish, us bassists will never develop into deities, unless you count the mythological kind, crossing the river Styx, conveyed in an antediluvian boat, with a prow shaped like a filigreed conductor’s podium, rowed by ancient Maestro Charon punting and beating at the waves (and us) with his gnarled white staff. Imprisoned in the Underworld, we toil in the dark, enrobed in our boiling hot black layers, the bright heavenly stage unreachable above our heads. Down here, we interminably saw and pluck out our deep rumbling timbres, much like Sisyphus thrusting at his boulder, with the snarling teeth and sinister growls of three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the exit, until Heracles’ impossible 12th labor where he seizes the mongrel, just in time for intermission and my nightly escape to the vending machines for Pop Tarts. Hope those Nutcracker kids left me some artificially-flavored blueberry ones.
In New York, a city overflowing with fine musicians, my dear colleagues are among the very very finest, and are an endless source of inspiration to me, especially my bass section mates Marji Danilow, Wan Hao Xu, and Grey Fulmer. All these years together, and we really function as a clan. All feuds are eventually resolved. Retirements only occur once or twice a year, and are bittersweet farewells, quickly followed by a replacement audition, whose winner is anticipated with great excitement. Is it one of our regular subs? Is it a member’s student as I was?
For new players, the Nutcracker catharsis goes something like this.
Before first show: I’ve heard it on all those commercials. Is it kind of Broadway? Is it kind of pops stuff? What is it really? I played it at Radio City. Kinda hokey. Does it get boring?
After first show: Oh my gosh! It’s amazing and I love it! The music between the familiar tunes is so beautiful and wonderful. I had no idea! It goes by so quickly too. And we’re done by 9 p.m.? Wow!
As 1,000 of these two-hour manifestations zip along, I blink, and it all blends seamlessly into a 30-year tenure of my life. It dumbfounds me that the personnel of the band has changed by almost 75 percent since my rookie season, so I’ve seen the above catharsis a lot. By now, it’s a wonder my middle-aged brain can remember everyone’s name! I finally empathize with my dear old musician dad Herbie, who, before he died, had a habit of reminiscing about gigs that occurred “the other day,” but in actuality happened in the mid-1950s. The dancers and musicians age and retire, but like an evening primrose, the timeless Nutcracker is reborn afresh every tender twilight…and twice on matinee days. Some of my original colleagues traced their orchestral careers back to the great Toscanini, including my first stand-partner, the inimitable David Walter, who had been my teacher at Juilliard. Our recently retired timpanist, the legendary Arnold Goldberg, who was with the ballet company starting at its creation in 1948 – well, no one will ever equal his performance numbers, probably over 2,000 Nuts, and 10,000 overall. As that might lead you to imagine, us veterans probably can play Nutcracker in our sleep, and I sheepishly admit that I did that occasionally when my children were colicky infants. Even nowadays, during hyper-busy weeks of composing, fundraising for my own jazz orchestra, home renovating, bill paying, and commuting in heinous traffic over the George Washington Bridge, I can arrive at my music stand, sit on my wonderfully comfortable and infinitely adjustable German-made bass stool, revel in it all, and realize that it is the most relaxing and rejuvenating moment of my day.
Maestro Andrew Litton is my fifth music director. All have been so different musically. Among other good things, he likes perfect intonation and unified, logical phrasing. Andrea Quinn liked driving, pulsating tempos. Faycal Karoui preferred to bring counter-melodies up in the mix, making the music sound surprisingly different. Gordon Boelzner was satisfied enough that everyone showed up on time night after night. Robert Irving dreamed of what libations awaited him at O’Neills afterwards. You do remember O’Neills, don’t you? We have our staff conductors who become great friends over the years, and we often have guests. They are almost always excellent, or at least professional. They instinctively comprehend that we know the score better than they do, so Maestro-splaining is unheard of. It would certainly backfire.
THE ANOMALIES AND ILLNESSES
(A/K/A THE SHOW MUST GO ON!)
The great Christmas tree never fails to grow, but confetti snow often blows into the pit, and the music stand lights once went completely dark. Another time the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” keyboardist didn’t show up. I could practically reach the synthesizer from my bass seat to “play” the voices, but I couldn’t remember which patch button to press and I lost my moment to be the hero. Actually, maybe I was smart, because had I pressed the wrong button, the boy’s-choir might have come out sounding like the steam calliope from the Carousel ballet. Such are the quirks of electronica. If Tchaikovsky had known of such possibilities, this would be a wholly different show.
When illnesses happen, our ace personnel manager David Titcomb scrambles for replacements, often up until the very minute before curtain. Playing with terrific subs is fantastic, and forces me to keep my own game sharp, lest they outshine me. Actually, most of them can. Here’s some advice: If you want to substitute in our band, it helps if your apartment is in the West 50s or 60s, and you are a good runner. Just make sure your tuxedo is clean. Better yet, just put it on, mill around the stage door about 6 p.m. looking eager and hungry. Hey, you never know! Arnie Goldberg, who was also the manager before David, once said he wanted to keep a fake violin under his desk, and he fantasized about calling upon his non-musician wife to just sit there and hold it if he really got stuck, which he never did. Once, the late, great Hugo Fiorato (then in his 80s) conducted an entire week of eight shows because the younger members of the music staff were all out sick with man-colds or other various maladies. Hugo was a remarkable person. (If you don’t know what a man-cold is, ask your husband.) Now-retired conductor Maurice Kaplow once took ill at intermission, and his cover had already left the building, thinking the evening safe. This was before the cell phone era, so panic ensued. The cover was hunted down at the last minute, but one of our musicians could easily have led the band from the podium, and perhaps even the dance department might have stepped in to save the show if need be. We are a multi-gifted bunch.
Having a ballet dancer son means that for the last 15 years worth of Decembers, at least once a year, on my day off, I attend a performance of – you guessed it – the Nutcracker! I’ve seen my son progress from the Long Island Nutcracker to the Knickerbocker Suite and on and on, culminating a few seasons ago in his professional performances with Pennsylvania Ballet as a seasoned pro. They do the Balanchine version in Philadelphia, and some days I can sit in the audience there to see him dance a matinee, then myself sit in the pit and play the evening show back in NYC. To traverse this confusing space-time continuum, I utilize a special transporter with advanced technology called the New Jersey Starship, I mean Transit. Besides following my son’s career, the most gratification I get these days is watching his ballet schoolmates come in to their own artistic maturity. Many of the little kids I watched grow up are now tested members of the NYCB, and are making their debuts in the delightful roles the Nutcracker offers. Will some make the jump to stardom? It’s happily inevitable. I’ll be accompanying them with my bass, and rooting for them well into my second millennium. I hope you join me here often. Come down and say hello.
To submit an essay for consideration in Allegro’s “Member to Member” column, contact Mikael Elsila.