A Totally Enjoyable Nutcracker, Complete With Live Music From OrchestraNEXT

By Suzi Steffen
Photos by Jeremy Bronson of Reed Souther and Beth Maslinoff, courtesy Eugene Ballet

Some people go to The Nutcracker every year, and thus they know which year the baby mice squeaked the best, or which year the tail end child in the Chinese Lion dance kicked up their heels at the exact right time, not to mention which year one of the kids peed a costume just before going onstage*.

But for your reviewer, almost all of the Eugene Ballet‘s Nutcracker was new. Sure, I went as a child with my grandmother, but I was very young – let’s just call this several decades ago – and, like many of the tiny children around us on opening night in Eugene (the ballet company’s 28th Nutcracker this season), I fell asleep early and missed a lot of the good stuff.

Not this time. Nope. Thus was I enchanted – not by the world that Clara, the original fanfiction writer, creates in her mind as she dreams, but by the entire unwieldy, goofy, silly, fun apparatus of the ballet that has come to mean “Christmastime” to so many thousands of people. Like so many traditions, it’s a bit creaky – surely the adults, who have danced it so many times, are weary of it by now – but also charming. And because the ice clearly kept many people from the show last night, I hope that the remaining three performances in Eugene (and two in Salem) are sold out. (Just about every ballet company in the U.S. depends on the Nutcracker for survival.) Heck, when you go, be prepared to line up to buy gifts at the Nutcracker market set up in the lobby – books, socks, dolls, ornaments and, heck, nutcrackers themselves.

Aside from the superfun bazaar and the camaraderie of adults in happy holiday gear and the (usually) cute children asleep in their parents’ and grandparents’ arms everywhere, one of the great charms of the Nutcracker in Eugene is hearing Tchaikovsky’s familiar, excellent music live. That’s thanks to Orchestra NEXT under the direction of Brian McWhorter, now in its fifth year of performing with the Eugene Ballet.

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Live music warms up the performance space in a way even the best recorded music simply cannot do, and the charms of having musicians in the orchestra pit are only increased when McWhorter, a total ham, comes out to take a bow at the end.

Orchestra NEXT was founded by McWhorter, a trumpet professor at the UO School of Music and Dance, and Sarah Viens, another fine trumpet player and instructor, with the deep support of other UO music profs like Lydia Van Dreel (horn), Steve Vacchi (bassoon) and Molly Barth (flute). Its role is to get students in the music school paired with mentors and playing professionally in real-world situations. I interviewed McWhorter earlier this winter about ON. Here is our edited Q&A:

Suzi Steffen: What do you feel like you’ve accomplished with Orchestra NEXT over the past five years?

Brian McWhorter: We’ve become something of a mainstay, and we’ve established for a lot of people that live music is better at the ballet. It’s easy, and maybe more relevant [at this time of year], to reduce that to The Nutcracker, but live music is THE thing for Ballet companies in terms of reaching the audience. We have so many kids coming to those shows and so many coming up to pit at intermission saying, “I’ve seen it every year you’ve done it.” That’s incredible, and that really makes me think that of all the kinds of performances I’ve done throughout my career, doing The Nutcracker is maybe one of the most impactful performances.

It’s much easier to be empathetic to the emotions happening on stage when it’s live, when it’s performed. It’s like the difference between watching football on TV and watching it live.

That first year, we did Nutcracker, the second and third we added two other productions, and now we’re at three productions [with the Eugene Ballet], with one fully commissioned work. [Editor’s note: You can read more about The Snow Queen in this Bob Keefer piece from The Eugene Weekly.]  This is the most creative outcome we’ve done in those five years. In my field as a performer, contemporary music, I never got close to commissioning 90 minutes of music for one performance. It’s the first time they’ve ever commissioned a full score along with a new ballet. I think that’s pretty great for our first five years!

What’s the advantage of having live music at the ballet?

The dancers dance better. They all feel it a little differently. With a recording, they can get into a rhythm with it that’s very predictable, but with live music, there’s things that are up in the air, and they also feel the humanity of it much more directly. You see it in their movement. I’ve seen so many rehearsals with them doing things with the recording, and then in the performance, they’re so much more invested.

What about the audience? Why should they want live music?

There’s something with the idea of empathy; it’s much easier to be empathetic to the emotions happening on stage when it’s live, when it’s performed. It’s like the difference between watching football on TV and watching it live.

Also, we’re building social capital and building cultural capital with the younger players. Having them be part of that production – it’s a big community with that Nutcracker show. The cast is a lot of people that really want it; they want to put on a great show. It says a lot about this community.

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Orchestra NEXT’s horn section before Saturday night’s performance, all holiday’d out. Clockwise from upper right: Amrit Evan Gupta, Lydia Van Dreel (mentor), Gavin Betterley, Alexis Thompson; photo by Linda Jenkins (third flute)

What impact do you think Orchestra NEXT has on the student musicians?

This gig is one of the more important gigs that these students have ever had. They sit next to these pros, and you know how powerful that can be. A lot of what the students say is it’s not just the playing, it’s watching their mannerisms. They see oh, you’re supposed to do this, oh, you’re supposed to that – little tiny things we would never teach in an academy, like bringing a pencil to a rehearsal, responding to a conductor when they ask you to do something, how the pros respond when they have a movement off when they’re just sitting in the pit.

When I was in New York playing shows on Broadway and you had a significant period off, often you’d just take out a magazine. But what happens here is that all the pros sit and pay attention. They take what happens in the previous movement and use it for their performance.

The Nutcracker with original choreography by Toni Pimble
2 pm and 7:30 pm Saturday, Dec. 17
2 pm Sunday, Dec. 18
The Hult Center, Eugene
Tickets $15 (college students with ID)-$59 plus ticketing fees, online or 541-682-5000.

*This story conveyed to your reviewer by stagehands nearly a decade ago. Kids who peed their costumes then are probably coming back with parents and grandparents and younger siblings even now.

Suzi Steffen

Suzi has been writing about the arts in Eugene, Ashland and Portland for about 10 years. She loves riding her Torker Trike, Momo; going to performances; reading and writing books; gardening; and watching as many films as possible in between everything else. Email her at suzi at theeugenereview dot com.

suzi has 22 posts and counting.See all posts by suzi

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