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A View From the Pit: Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

A "band nerd" watches the ballet from down there in the dark with the orchestra.
Feature | December 21, 2015 | By Jonathan Shipley

There I sat in the dark behind the first violinists. I could see the stage down there better than anyone in the orchestra and yet I saw very little. A ballet dancer with a fake beard for a moment or two. Some kids playing what looks to be leap frog? I can't see! Someone wearing a crown. I think a woman? A peacock just danced by. A bunch of mice? I see the mice! And the Mouse King! Wait—where did it go? There's something going on up there, I know it! The audience is rapt and applauding! And yet, from the orchestra pit, seeing the show itself is the pits. If you want to watch the new production of Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Nutcracker, there are much better seats available.

Exhibit A:

Nutcracker

Not that I'm complaining! I'm a band nerd. I've played trombone since the fifth grade. I even played with the orchestra's trombone player once during a 4th of July Seattle Civic Band concert. So when I was offered the opportunity to sit in the pit to watch the Tchaikovksy magic happen, how could I refuse? A Christmas wish come true; celebrating the season with my people. Classical music nerds. Orchestra players. Oboeists. Bassoonists. A violinist. Hey, is that a celeste behind the harp?! Sweet!

Celeste

Seeing on a violinist's stand the entirety of The Nutcracker in print is like seeing a poem written by Robert Frost in his own hand. The creation of such a thing! These artists bring the music to life—dots and dashes on a page, a language not yet spoken. The melodies not yet translated without the sounds and rhythms created by these people. A Christmas miracle!

Score

To see the musicians work is something. The conductor leading everyone into a land of sugar plum fairies and peacocks and flying reindeer.

Conductor

And the score! The two-act ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892 and was not well received. One dancer was described as "completely insipid." The battle scene was confusing. "Quite amateurish." The libretto "lopsided." Most liked Tchaikovsky's score, though even it had detractors. One reviewer called the music "ponderous." The piece is now one of the most famous works not only by Tchaikovsky, but in the entire classical music canon, and the ballet is one of the most popular in North America. Major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.

It's dark in the pit but the score is well lit. It has to be if musicians are going to read it.

Violinist

You'll also see that they're in the holiday spirit. See the Christmas lights? The harpist had Yoda lights. He says he has the best ones.

Some people do not have big parts down in the pit. There were two vocalists who sang a little near the end of Act I. They left at intermmsion and before their big number, they both read. One read from a Kindle. Another thumbed through a magazine. The harpist read a book sometimes. A percussionist read what looked to be the Seattle Weekly. The celeste player didn't show up until intermission.

There's a backup conductor down there. He sat behind me. If the conductor falls ill, or falls (!), they have someone to take the conductor's place, heaven forbid. From what I understand, there is even a backup for the backup. The celeste player can do it!

Celeste Player

Orchestra members take their snacks seriously. Each performance—yes, each performance—has a different theme for the snack table. the other night they had Star Wars treats. Another night they had the seven plagues of Egypt as a snack theme. Who wants Bubonic Plague snacks? Anyone? The night I was there was Cuban Missle Crisis night. Think beans and rice, tropical fruits and very small meat missles.

Snacks

The percussionist has to be adept at the triangle. There's so much triangle needed!

It all seems effortless down there in the pit, though. The orchestra players are all passionate and eager to share the season with everyone in that audience. Every ticket buyer wanting to feel that tinge of Christmas magic gets it through the dancers and through those that create music in the dark.

Happy holidays, everyone.

November 27, 2015 to December 28, 2015
321 Mercer St
Seattle, WA 98109
206-441-2424