December is the month of Nutcrackers, and a holiday tradition for many Long Islanders is to see the Eglevsky Ballet perform their prestigious production at the Tilles Center for the Arts in Brookville, Long Island. Eglevsky’s production, the largest and only professional production on Long Island, not only features guest dancers from the NYC Ballet, but this year will also feature the Massapequa Philharmonic performing the alluring score by Tchaikovsky. We sat down with Maurice Curry, Executive Artistic Director of the Eglevsky Ballet, and David Bernard, Music Director of the Massapequa Philharmonic to discuss their collaboration and approach to The Nutcracker.
BWW Classical World: Producing Long Island’s Premiere Production of The Nutcracker is an important legacy. How do you balance the need for tradition and your desire to innovate?
MAURICE CURRY: At Eglevsky, we work hard to blend tradition with innovation. We have designed a production that is highly dramatic, delving deep into the characters of ‘Clara’ and ‘Drosselmeyer’ while keeping the dancing as the true star of the ballet featuring world-class professionals, including Unity Phelan, soloist at New York City Ballet as the “Sugar Plum Fairy” and Jared Angle, principal dancer at New York City Ballet as her “Cavalier”. Chris Comfort, and accomplished film and stage actor, will portray Clara’s lovable and mysterious godfather, “Drosselmeyer”. Rounding out the cast of 25 professional dancers and 70 children is 16-year old Yumiko Yanagihara, a junior at Syosset High School, who will portray the lead role of “Clara”. To acknowledge our rich history, we are featuring several Eglevsky Ballet Alumni in the ballet’s well-known party scene in Act 1. For example, Jennifer Sauter, who appeared in many Eglevsky Nutcrackers as a child and teenager, will play the role of “Mrs. Stahlbaum”, Clara’s mother. And we are proud to feature the Massapequa Philharmonic under Maestro David Bernard to perform Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score.
BWW Classical World: How do you differentiate Eglevsky’s Nutcracker from other productions?
MAURICE CURRY: Every Nutcracker production is unique in how the relationships of Clara, Drosselmeyer, and the Nutcracker Prince are treated. I see Clara and the Nutcracker Prince as integral to the plot of both the “real-life” and dream segments of the ballet. It is important for me that the narrative establishes their attraction to each other before the dream to justify what happens the dream. The result is that in In our production, Clara first encounters the Prince as Drosselmeyer’s Assistant at the party early in the ballet, and then following the battle, together dance the Land of Snow, which in most other productions is danced as a pas de deux for a Snow Queen and a Snow King. Developing the relationship between Clara and the Prince through this dance symbolizes a first romance for two young people and reveals the attraction felt between the two characters at the Party Scene. Our production is highly theatrical, delving deeper into the characters of ‘Clara’ and ‘Drosselmeyer’ while keeping the dancing as the true star of the ballet.
BWW Classical World: How does Tchaikovsky’s music impact the experience of the audience?
DAVID BERNARD: Tchaikovsky’s score has a magical ability to transport listeners. Beneath the giant Christmas Tree, the Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Land of the Sweets is an underlying current of mysticism throughout the work. Tchaikovsky’s magic ignites our imagination through a sound world that is so vivid that the ballet’s fantastical narrative of passion, magic, drama and exuberance takes on a realism all its own. Tchaikovsky brings the drama to life with some of his best music. For example, in the Pas de Deux at the end of Act 2, Tchaikovsky uses a simple descending scale as the primary theme-the same scale played in practice rooms every day around the world. But in Tchaikovsky’s hands this most basic musical gesture becomes poetry so exquisite that it leaves you with chills. Similar to a master painter turning a few primary colors into art, Tchaikovsky’s “artistic alchemy” expertly turns musical lead into musical gold.< BWW Classical World: The best known selection from The Nutcracker is arguably the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. What makes this dance so unique and popular? MAURICE CURRY: Even without knowing of or seeing the ballet, the music alone evokes a mysterious and elusive character, which is an uncommon dimension to a monarch of the kingdom of sweets. The celesta brings an ethereal quality alongside the sense of royalty in the music that achieves this effect, which is especially effective in the portrayal of a magic fairy. DAVID BERNARD: Tchaikovsky’s use of the celesta was both brilliant and iconic. The Celesta-named for its uncommonly magical “celestial sound”-was introduced just prior to the premiere of the Nutcracker, and Tchaikovsky knew this instrument was the key to representing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet. He immediately asked his publisher Jurgenson to purchase one for him in secret so it could be featured in the Nutcracker as an innovation, while not being pre-empted by Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov using the instrument first. As it turns out, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy became the music by which the Celesta has been known for over a century. BWW Classical World: The appearance of the gigantic Christmas Tree is always unforgettable. What is the significance of this moment, and what is your approach in this production? MAURICE CURRY: In the latter half of Act 1, as we are brought into Clara’s dream world, we experience many aspects of the “mind’s eye” as objects start to grow and inanimate objects come to life. The growth of the Christmas Tree to its gargantuan size is not only part of this process, but also marks the point we have fully arrived in Clara’s dream. DAVID BERNARD: Tchaikovsky score helps us visualize to our journey to Clara’s dream world with absolute clarity through its depiction of the growing Christmas Tree. To be successful, the music must convey continual growth for an extended period of time to show the power of the transformation, something that is difficult to portray in music due to the limitations of phrase lengths. But Tchaikovsky’s musical language knows no bounds, and succeeds brilliantly. We begin by combining slowly rising legato lines in the upper voice with descending lines in the lower voice, a technique that allows the upper voice to sound as though it is climbing faster than it actually is. We then reach the climax of the first phrase with a cadence that feels as though we have arrived at a landing while climbing a flight of stairs-followed by the beginning of a new phrase that continues the climb. After three extended phrases and three full minutes of musical ascent, the music alone compels us to visualize the tree reaching its full size through an incredible and moving process. In many ways, Tchaikovsky’s approach to convey the continual growth of the tree across multiple phrases foreshadows Max Escher’s Ascending and Descending, where the physical limits of height no longer limit continual ascent. The Eglevsky Ballet’s performances of The Nutcracker featuring the Massapequa Philharmonic led by Maestro David Bernard will take place on Saturday, December 16th, at 1pm and 5pm and Sunday, December 17th at 2 PM at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Long Island University in Brookville. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster online at this link: http://bit.ly/EglevskyNutcracker