The Nutcracker and a piano lesson

by Rob Tiller

We went to the Carolina Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker last week. Over the years, I’ve seen many Nutcrackers, from student productions to the NY City Ballet’s. In days gone by we used to listen to the Tchaikovsky music when we decorated the Christmas tree. I’ve never actually gotten sick of it, but a few years back I started to worry that it could happen. With the ballet music, just as earlier happened with the Brahms symphonies, I decided that I needed to be careful not to get so familiar as to lose the great joy of the thing. And so we hadn’t gone to the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker for the last couple of years.

I’m glad we returned. The CB production was substantially upgraded with new sets and effects. I enjoyed the upgraded magic tricks in Act 1, and thought the costumes in the ball scene were opulent. Act 1 is the children’s act — with magic tricks and children playing, but not a lot of dancing. Act 2 is more for the grown-ups, with a variety of virtuosic classical dance. The leading female roles in the performance I saw were wonderful, including Lilyan Vigo as a regal Sugarplum Fairy, Jan Burkhard as an outgoing Dewdrop, and Lara O’Brien as an unusually poignant, melancholy Tea. The men seemed especially athletic (gravity-defying) this year, including a particularly impressive Richard Krusch and Nikolai Smirnov.

Before the show, we agreed to celebrate the occasion by relaxing as completely as possible and just drink in the production — that is, clear the mind of everything except the beauty in the moment. We mostly succeeded. There were a couple of rough spots with the props, including the giant book with the false back that didn’t quite get closed in time. The sound quality from the live orchestra coming through speakers was less than excellent. But mostly we were swept away to a beautiful, magical place.

We met up with Lola and her boyfriend, Rodrigo, after the show, and learned that she’d had to switch roles at the last minute and, due to another dancer’s health problem, perform in a position she’d never done before. She said it was one of the least enjoyable shows of her life, because it took so much work, and was very far from solid. Of course, none of that was visible to us — she looked great. It was good, though, to be reminded of how hard the performers work to create the appearance of effortlessness.

At my piano lesson last week, Olga touched on this point. I’ve been bringing at least some memorized music to our lessons, and from time to time memory glitches occur. To fix this, part of her approach is to minimize dependence on muscle memory and build security through harmonic analysis. At the same time, she recommends thinking about the movements of the arms, wrists, and fingers as choreography — that is, gestures that have beauty separate from the beauty of the sound (but contributing to it). Planning the gestures and getting them ingrained is part of learning the piece.

At the lesson I began with Chopin’s mazurka opus 63, no. 3 (c sharp minor). (It’s unfortunate that great composers of the Romantic period passed on giving their works names. With 51 published mazurkas, it’s hard even for musicians to keep them straight by number. I generally try to think of a name for the ones I learn. I think of this one as: Sharp Longing.) It has unusually strange, sad harmonies and dissonances. I managed to play it coherently, and was pleased that Olga noted some interesting and lovely things. But, she noted, there was still a lot of work to do.

It is daunting to face Olga’s listening powers. At one point she perceived, correctly, that I was not carefully listening to what I was doing. “You’re faking it,” she said. Note, I was playing the right notes, but not balancing them in a considered way. This is a high standard — not just playing right, but playing with deep understanding. She acknowledges that there are many possible ways to play a phrase, but it is not acceptable to just play the notes without understanding and feeling.

As best I can tell, she does not draw a sharp line between the physical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of playing the piano. She recommended that I think about touching the keys as though I were speaking, which I found helpful. She also forced me to consider carefully about how my thumb moved to contact a key as opposed to the other fingers. We also talked for a while about the role of the elbow in certain situations. Not to mention the wrists! And that’s before we even get to the form or the music, or what it is trying to say. After the mazurka, we worked on the Etude Op. 25, No. 1, and Debussy’s Reverie. At the end, I felt tired, but inspired: there’s so much more challenging, beautiful music ahead.