Tag Archive: Tchaikovsky

A friend of mine claims that Fairbanks has more arts events for its size than any other city. I’m not going to take a stand one way or another, if only because the metric is so poorly defined, but it certainly has more going on than my inability to drive at night (and the lack of alternative transportation) will let me attend! This time of year, however, the evenings are light enough I can go places, and the Fairbanks Symphony’s Concerto Competition concert April 29 was certainly worth attending.

The Concerto Competition is held each year to find the best young local musicians in four categories: 11 years and under, 12-15, 16-18 and University of Alaska Fairbanks students. Winners play with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra at one of their concerts – this year, the last concert of the season, Sunday evening. They were superb. Every one received a standing ovation, and in my opinion, well deserved. Granted, the tenor is a graduate student and an understudy for the role of Rudolpho in the Opera Fairbanks production of La Bohéme this summer, but these kids are talented and the concerto portion of the concert alone was worth attending.

And that wasn’t all.

The second half of the concert had two “patriotic” pieces that were both inspiring and somewhat overwhelming. The first was Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. You know the one – bits about Lincoln, interspersed with his own words, read to a background which (and I caught this primarily because of the pre-concert lecture) quoted several times from Camptown Races. It took a few bars for the orchestra to find the right balance between their own volume and that of the reader, but once the balance was found it was an excellent performance. Then came Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Maestro Zilberkant always gives an introductory lecture before the concert, and when I can attend the concert, I generally manage to arrive early for the lecture. This time he let us in on some interesting bits about the cannon fire and church bells which are orchestrated parts of this piece — often with real cannons, which are not all that easy to time properly, and which (for obvious reasons) are not used indoors. Timing? Imagine a gunner lighting a fuse to fire a cannon which has to go off at exactly the right time. How long must the fuse be? Exactly when must it be lit? And since cannons have to have a cool-down period between firings, it takes no less that 18 cannons!

It is possible to fire the cannons outdoors and have the sound piped indoors, and to Maestro Zilberkant’s credit, he checked with our local Army base, Fort Wainwright, about the possibility. A century ago, it might have worked. Today it would require closing all roads in the vicinity of the university and closing the airspace over the university (which would mean closing down the Fairbanks airport.) It wasn’t practical. A recording of cannon fire was used, and played through – well, I don’t think they were your usual everyday speakers. Maestro Zilberkant warned those sitting near the speakers to move before the final piece was played. The building shook – literally. I don’t think anyone’s hearing was actually damaged, but then I was at the very back of the theater, and the loudspeakers were at the front.

I hope I can figure out a way to get to more concerts next winter.

The Nutcracker (DVD review)

“It wasn’t much of a success, and nobody performs it nowadays …” Deems Taylor said that about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet in Fantasia, released in 1940. He couldn’t say it today!

Even here in Fairbanks we have a live performance every Christmas, though regrettably I’ve never been able to attend it, as I no longer see well enough to drive in the dark. But I do watch the DVDs every year, and it is DVDs, plural, as I now have three versions of the ballet, in addition to the Disney version of the suite.

The oldest, as far as when it was filmed, is the Bolshoi Ballet version, with Yekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Nadia Pavlova and Vyasheslav Gordeyev in the lead roles. The DVD has no copyright date, but since Yekaterina died at 70 two years ago, and performed with the Bolshoi only until 1980, it is reasonable to infer that the actual performance took place in the ‘60s or ‘70s. This is the one I watch least frequently, as there is something seriously wrong with the color – the red of the Nutcracker and the violet of the mouse king’s cape seem to have bled in the original film print before they were digitized, leading to an unpleasant blurring in the DVD.

The second is a BBC video, which for years was shown every Christmas on PBS. This performance, of the Royal Ballet at Convent Garden, is much more recent, with a copyright date of 2000. The third, the San Francisco Ballet, has a copyright of 2008 and replaced the BBC Nutcracker on PBS a couple of years ago.

Although the three share the same music, they are rather different in staging and in some of the dances. The first act, at home Christmas Eve, is costumed, stage dressed and to some extent choreographed according to the time and place selected. I’m no expert on dress, but the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet versions looked similar to me, with “Victorian” dress and house, though supposedly in Europe. The San Francisco Ballet version was explicitly set in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair, and the clothing was much softer.

The three versions also differ in how Clara and the Nutcracker Prince travel to the land of sweets: a ship that flies through the air in the Bolshoi version, a sleigh piloted by Christmas Angels in the Royal Ballet version, and a sleigh pulled by dancers costumed as horses in the San Francisco Ballet. Not two men making one horse, but four prancing dancers, each wearing a crystal horse head. The effect was surprisingly evocative of real horses.

There are also differences in the story. In the Bolshoi version (where Clara is called Mischa) the Nutcracker Prince and Clara are the lead dancers throughout, though the dancers are different for the two acts. In the Royal Ballet, there are two sets of lead dancers: Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in both acts, and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince (who is not the Nutcracker) in the second act. In the San Francisco version, The Nutcracker Prince is apparently the consort of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but Clara is transformed into a ballerina for the Pas de deux with the Prince.

Probably the most popular part of the ballet – and most of the Nutcracker Suite – is what I will call the ethnic dances: the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances, along with the Dance of the Mirlitons (Marzipan dance in the Bolshoi version) and the Waltz of the Flowers. In the Bolshoi version, the first four are danced by pairs of dancers, male and female. In the Royal Ballet version, only the Spanish Dance has a balance of male and female dancers, and Clara and/or the Nutcracker join in these dances. The San Francisco version is the only one with Madame du Cirque and the dancing bear, but the music for that section is in the Bolshoi version, where it accompanies the ethnic dancers who join the marzipan shepherd and shepherdess after their dance. The Chinese dance in the San Francisco version is based on the Chinese New Year parades in Chinatown, with a dragon chasing a single male dancer.

My favorite part? The ballet danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince in the Royal Ballet version. Those dancers are incredible athletes, to make such effort look so light and graceful.