New Classical Tracks: A New Nutcracker

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
November 30, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — The Ghost of Christmas Past has many faces, many facets. For most of my school-age years, and through the better part of college as well, December nights would find me falling asleep on the couch watching the Christmas lights dance on the wall in a happy myopic blur. All-day baking marathons that would stretch into the wee small hours of the morning, filling the dark, warm house with the smell of yeast bread, walnuts and spice. Fistfuls of fresh oranges from the tree in our Arizona back yard. Encountering any one of these things--a fuzzy orb of colored light, the smell of fresh bread or oranges--can, for just a moment, catapult me right into Christmas. Not a particular Christmas, but the catch-all "Christmas of my youth." But how to make that moment last?

Music. We often speak of music as transformative--as having the power to comfort and soothe, to elate and exhilarate--but with the best music, there's also an added layer of magic, that fills the inner child with a bright-eyed sense of wonder and unlimited possibility. Maybe I will get a pony this year!

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic's new release of "The Nutcracker" by Tchaikovsky landed on my desk a few weeks ago. It was one of those late fall days where any trace of autumnal beauty is long gone, and all that's left is dreary and grey and you have to force yourself not to think about how long it's going to be before you can wear sandals again. So I put the CD in.

Tchaikovsky did not waste any time establishing the mood here. It's magic. He used a crafty orchestral trick to up the effervescence , by letting the low end of the orchestra sit this one out. What remains is light, delicate, tiptoeing anticipation.

That wasn't the only trick up Tchaikovsky's sleeve for his ballet. He even introduced a new instrument in The Nutcracker, one that will forever be associated with the Sugar Plum Fairy.

She's just one many characters in this gorgeous fairy tale. Our heroine is escorted to The Kingdom of Sweets by the Nutcracker Prince...and not only are there sugar plums, but sweet Arabian coffee, tea from China, and a big Mama Ginger with dozens of ginger babies.

Tchaikovsky infuses these musical portraits with spice and flavor, mystery and whimsy. And, says Simon Rattle, even a little shadow--and sex.

He describes one movement in particular as dark and smoldering... and heartbreaking. At his touch, the Berlin Philharmonic brings all that to bear in the sinuous, sensuous Arabian Dance.

Rattle says he wasn't always a Tchaikovsky fan, but he describes The Nutcracker as revolutionary and extraordinary. He's aware of Tchaikovsky's lifelong depression and marvels that this man, so full of despair, could create music of "such joy and generosity."

I guess that's the secret to keeping that childlike Christmas feeling alive: giving it to someone else. The Nutcracker is full of that theme of giving. The grown-ups give a party. Herr Drosselmeyer gives Clara the Nutcracker Prince. Clara gives the Nutcracker a hand in battle (actually, a shoe, thrown at the head of the evil Mouse King). The Nutcracker gives Clara a privileged peek into the goings-on in the magical world that exists under the Christmas tree. And Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic give us a reminder of how the best gifts are truly timeless: this ballet is more than 125 years old, but still packs a delirious gingerbread-, chocolate-, peppermint- and pine-scented punch.

So. You. Go forth and give. Surprise someone with that homemade bread, or a box of oranges from the old homestead. Make sure someone else can be transported by music, again and again and again. And allow yourself to be a child, at least once a year.

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