“Nutcracker:” the holiday classic runs through December 27, 2011, at San Francisco Ballet—ARThound talks with two participating Sonoma County musicians
Nutcracker season is here and San Francisco’s Ballet’s production, which opened last Friday, is one of the best in the country. Its sumptuous blend of Tchaikovsky’s music, exquisite dance, and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s ingenious bow to San Francisco─setting the ballet in San Francisco on Christmas Eve during the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition─make it a unique treat. And there’s nothing like the festive experience of dressing up and celebrating the season at the stunning grand War Memorial Opera House. For the musicians in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, the experience is also one of endurance. This year, the orchestra, under the direction of SF Ballet Music Director Martin West, will perform the beloved production 30 times throughout December, often twice daily, and it’s estimated that close to 100,000 people will attend. For listeners in the audience, it’s impossible to imagine that Tchaikovsky’s score ever palls. Parts of it are so familiar─the Sugar Plum Pas de Deux or the Danse des Mirlitons or the March of the Toy Soliders─that they are steeped in our subconscious and always enchanting. Aside from its difficulty─it’s Tchaikovsky─one of the challenges Nutcracker presents for musicians is simply keeping it fresh performance after performance. The orchestra finished up with Carmen at San Francisco Opera and began rehearsing Nutcracker the first week of December and had a rehearsal with the actual dancers just prior to last Friday’s opening performance. I spoke with two Sonoma County musicians in the orchestra who have each played countless Nutcrackers─bassoonist Rufus Olivier, of Sebastopol, and cellist Ruth Lane, of Petaluma and our conversations are below. If you’re attending the ballet, especially with children, a wonderful opportunity exists before each performance to walk right up to the pit and meet and greet and observe the musicians in the orchestra who play such an integral part in the magic of the ballet.
Rufus Olivier, Principal bassoonist, SF Ballet and Opera Orchestras, is a Sebastopol resident and is one of two bassoonists with the ballet orchestra. Even before arriving in the Bay Area, Olivier had quite a reputation. In 1975, Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave the 18 year old Olivier a chance to play a concerto with the orchestra and he did such a good job that, afterwards, Mehta immediately offered him a co-principal position. Olivier went on to play with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Neville Marriner, and the Goldofsky Opera Tours. He moved to the Bay Area in 1977 and by 1980, he was the youngest principal to ever play in the SF Opera Orchestra and started playing Nutcracker in San Francisco some 30 years ago with Christensen’s production which predates both Martin West and Helgi Tomasson. Olivier studied under David Breidenthal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently teaches at Stanford one day each week. Olivier has been guest soloist with numerous orchestras all over the world. He has recorded many movie, video, CD and TV soundtracks including Disney’s Never Cry Wolf and San Francisco Opera’s Grammy-nominated CD Orphée et Eurydice, and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack Elmo in Grouchland. Olivier’s son, Rufus David Olivier, is also an accomplished bassoonist.
With over 30 seasons of Nutcrackers under your belt, how do you keep it fresh?
Rufus Olivier: First of all, it’s Tchaikovsky and very, very good music. Second, Tchaikovsky keeps you on your toes─it’s very hard─ and that’s takes care of keeping it fresh. That’s pretty much it.
What is the most challenging part for you as a bassoonist?
Rufus Olivier: There’s two—in the very beginning, in the first minute or two, there’s the woodwind interlude where there are these wild triplets, very high, and technically hard. And then there’s the Arabian Dance (Act II) which is musically hard and, by that, I mean it’s hard to put across the expression that I would like to convey, which is actually harder than being technically proficient. You can work through technical issues but it’s very hard to get to the point musically where I can make someone feel something that I want to convey and I want the dancers to feel something so that they dance better. If I play it more expressively, maybe sweetly, then anything can happen with the dancers and with the audience and they won’t know why but they will feel it. At a certain point in one’s career, the competition is with oneself. You’re not competing with anyone except yourself and you are challenging yourself all the time. All of my colleagues are trying, all the time, to sound as good as they can sound.
With Helgi Tomasson’s production, are there any cuts to the original score?
Rufus Olivier: Yes. The original score would come in at over three hours and Helgi’s production comes in at about 2 hours, but all the important and well-known parts are there and, actually, he’s added some things that weren’t in the previous production.
How aware are you of what the dancers are doing?
Rufus Olivier: I can’t see the dancers at all and completely reply on Martin who is watching the stage and I am watching him. Unlike the opera, I can’t hear anything.
What is the most challenging thing about playing the bassoon in an orchestra?
Rufus Olivier: Coming in when you’re supposed to (laughing). There are so many things you have to do and you are operating at a very high level of consciousness. By the time you reach the level of the opera, symphony or ballet, it’s almost automatic but your ears are everywhere. You are hyperaware even though your heart rate may be at rest. Everything can be hard but trying to play in tune with other instruments can be challenging and so can solos and dealing with conductors who can be crazy at times. And, when you’re not playing, whether it’s 3 bars or 20 bars, you can’t leave, you’ve got to sit there and be engaged and stay awake and count so you know when to come in.
What are the great bassoon solos in orchestral music?
Rufus Olivier: Two of the most famous symphonic solos for the bassoon include the theme for grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and the opening solo in Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.
What performances are you looking forward to musically in the coming season?
Rufus Olivier: We are playing RakU, which is one of the pieces written by our bass player Shinji Enshima. (RakU is part of the SF Ballet’s Program 6, and plays March 23-April 3, 2012. Click here to read more.) The piece just premiered last year and one day it may well be one of the premiere bassoon solos.
Ruth Lane, cellist, is a Petaluma resident and has been playing with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras since 1990. This is her 6th year of playing Nutcracker for an entire season’s run and she is one of six cellists in the ballet orchestra. Prior to that, she played several performances annually as a substitute musician. Lane has performed Nutcracker under Music Directors Dennis de Coteau and Martin West and under various guest conductors. Lane came from a family that was passionate about classical music and started studying cello at age 10 and received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from USC. In addition to the Bay Area, Lane has been heard in recital in the Los Angeles, and London. She is a member of the Bay Area’s Temescal String Quartet and she performed this September in Petaluma in “The V Concert” (click here to read ARThound’s coverage.) Strad magazine calls her “a cellist of scrupulous intentions and dexterous manual coordination . . . unimpeachable intonation and admirable poise.” (as quoted on the Temescal String Quartet page.)
What are the most important and challenging parts of Nutcracker for cello?
Ruth Lane: We don’t have any solos and I am one of six cellos and we are all playing the same music. Woodwinds have the solos and the strings, which are a quieter instrument, tend to be like a chorus—it’s all the instruments together that create this blanker of sound that you recognize as the orchestra. The cellos play throughout but, in Act 1, we play what used to be a bear dance but is now a solider dance. We also play a lot in the battle scene and also in the Russian Sailor’s Dance.
All Tchaikovsky is challenging because he writes for the breadth of the cello and its very passionate music, so it really takes your all to play it well. You’ve really got to draw on that emotional level of interpretation beyond the technical. Performing a piece like Nutcracker so many times and trying to really keep it vital is very demanding emotionally.
With so many Nutcrackers under your belt and so many coming up, how do you keep it fresh night after night?
Ruth Lane: What I always draw on is the audience. Every night, at least 30 children with their parents will come up to the orchestra pit before the performance and they are pointing and waving and they are so excited. It’s so different from the opera performances where some of the front row is falling asleep. This just doesn’t happen in the Nutcracker. We’re always joking about how the age goes down by about 20 to 30 years across the board, from the performers to the audience, when you go form opera to ballet and the Nutcracker is just full of children. It’s that and the music itself which requires a lot from you.
How aware are you of what the dancers are doing?
Ruth Lane: From where I sit, I can usually see the dancers from the chest up, so I see them moving up and down. I follow the conductor and it’s his job to keep the orchestra and the dancers all together. I really like Martin West in conversation with Tchaikovsky─it’s passionate but he doesn’t tend to go overboard. He keeps the tempos up. Martin is very very good at coordinating the action he is seeing on stage with the sounds that come out of the pit. I haven’t worked with anybody who is as good as doing that as he is.
What’s your favorite ballet in terms of music?
Ruth Lane: Well, Nutcracker has some of the greatest music but my very favorite ballet is Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev which we are also performing later this season. The cellos do the love scene on the balcony, which is incredibly emotional and passionate, which keeps coming back again and again.
I know that some string instruments are extremely valuable and are meticulously handcrafted. Is there anything special about your cello?
Ruth Lane: Yes, my husband, Anthony Lane of Lane Violins, custom built my cello for me about 10 years ago and it’s got a wonderful sound and is beautifully decorated with painted images from the Sistine Chapel and the life of a violin maker. I’ve really enjoyed this special gift.
What’s the biggest challenge during the Nutcracker?
Ruth Lane: It’s stamina. The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky in general require a lot of muscle when playing the cello. For example, the Pas de Deux (Act II), at the end, is so rigorous that I have to know when to lay back and when to really pull out all the stops.
Do you have a favorite part?
Ruth Lane: I’ve always like the Trepak or Russian Sailor’s Dance (Act II) and the Pas de Deux (Act II) at the end.
Two Great SF Ballet Orchestra Nutcracker Recordings:
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (1991) with Denis de Coteau. This recording is groundbreaking. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra collected money from each individual musician and recorded this on their own at Skywalker Ranch in 1988. They were the first group to record and self-produce Nutcracker and received all royalties.
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker- San Francisco Ballet (2008) with Martin West, available as a DVD of the ballet performance or as a CD of the music.
Details: San Francisco Ballet performs at the historic 1932 War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Nutcracker runs December 9 through December 27, 2011.
Tickets: $22 to $275 available (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org/nutcracker
Parking: Civic Center Garage (on McAllister Street between Larkin and Polk); Performing Arts Garage (on Grove between Franklin and Gough streets); Opera Plaza Garage (valet only, 601 Van Ness, enter on Turk).
Arrival Time: Plan to arrive early to enjoy the sumptuous atmosphere and to ensure that you are seated. The theater enforces a no late seating policy and guests will not be seated after the lights have dimmed. Latecomers will be asked to stand until there is a break in the program, and will be seated at management’s discretion.
Run-time: Two hours with a 20-minute intermission.