The musical holidays are on this weekend; for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this year, that means three complete concert performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for “The Nutcracker.”
“The Nutcracker” is adapted from one of the German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s grotesque tales, “Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and Mouse King).” Legendary choreographer Marius Petipa gave Tchaikovsky his marching orders for all the dance sequences, from the styles to be used right down to the number of bars in each.
But the colorful orchestrations of the bright tunes (some of them borrowed from other sources) belong to the composer, and there are many charming and memorable melodies here. Given the popularity of the music and the ubiquity of the ballet at this time of year (productions of “Nutcracker” are how many ballet companies support the rest of their seasons), most of those melodies are immediately recognizable by even casual listeners.
There are a few problems with presenting most scores sans dancers as an evening’s entertainment. One is that there’s not a lot of room for interpretation; ballet conductors frequently need to be human metronomes in order to accommodate the dancers, and that necessity is reflected in the writing.
There’s not as much depth in “Nutcracker” as in the usual Tchaikovsky score, either; written for children, even the darker passages aren’t all that dark. The second half is set in the Kingdom of Sweets, after all, and while diabetes never threatens, there’s an awful lot of sugar here.
In his SLSO debut, conductor Andrew Grams was animated and fun to watch, and he held things together well. The orchestra, clad in concert black, responded with its usual attention and musical excellence, with fine solo moments from many of the principal and assistant principal players in the course of the evening. The Concert Choir of the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, directed by Barbara Berner, were excellent in their end-of-the-first-act wordless singing — a well-loved part of the score.
In an effort to add visual interest, the SLSO brought in lighting designer Luke Kritzeck. It’s a good idea, but not as engaging as it might have been; with the exception of the whirling snowflakes at the end of the first act, his design consisted largely of projecting colored lights in different hues against the back wall of the stage.
Last fall the wooden risers on which the orchestra usually performs disappeared; everyone is on the same level now. While it’s good for the timpani to be directly on the stage, the new arrangement is an issue for other instruments: The woodwinds tend to get covered, and the flutes can now sound a little shrill. It might be time to rethink this one.