Around this time of year the estate of Piotr Iilyich Tchaikovsky becomes very rich in the way of royalty checks. That’s because many performances of his Nutcracker ballet are given all around the world for the holidays. Usually it’s the straight classical version telling the story of Clara, Sugar Plum Fairy, Dew Drop and a Nutcracker Prince.
What better way is there for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to give its first family concert at the Music Center at Strathmore than to team up with DC’s own Step Afrika! dance troupe to bring the story of Ellington/Staryhorn’s Nutcracker to life.
In 1960 Duke Ellington and his collaborator/arranger Billy Strayhorn released their own take on Tchaikovsky’s holiday masterwork. Ellington/Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite contains nine movements and kicks the music up a notch utilizing five saxophones, four trombones, four clarinets, four trumpets, piano, bass and drums. This is not your grandma’s Nutcracker.
What better way is there for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to give its first family concert at the Music Center at Strathmore than to team up with DC’s own Step Afrika! dance troupe to bring the story of Ellington/Strayhorn’s Nutcracker to life.
The concert started with the orchestra playing three of the traditional pieces from the ballet. Maestro Ken Lam conducting with plenty of energy led us through the “Overture miniature” and then to the march you hear in the party scene. In case you need a reminder, click here. During this piece the audience was encouraged to march in their seats when the trumpets played and to wave their hands when the strings came in. Next up was “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” featuring soloist Lura Johnson on celeste.
Our narrator Shannan Johnson then started to tell us the story of brother and sister on Christmas eve. As the story unfolded through four movements from the Ellington/ Strayhorn composition, Step Afrika! with choreography by Artis Olds and Christopher Brient presented the story with their unique blend of tap, jazz and ballet. The orchestral adaptation for the music was done by Jeff Tyzik and added strings to the mix of what already was there in the original Strayhorn charts.
Brother and sister are looking outside their window as four street cleaners clear the street after a snowfall. Think Stomp with snow shovels to get the full effect. After the two fall asleep, their toy box comes to life and brother and sister are awakened.
They dance with a penguin, a soldier and of course the Nutcracker. Is it a dream? That is up to you.
Step Afrika! and the BSO blended perfectly together to merge the music and story together. If anything could have been improved it would be that I would have liked to have heard and seen the whole nine movement Ellington/Strayhorn piece realized through dance. We only heard “Overture”, “Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes),” “Peanut Brittle Brigade [March]” and “Dance of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers).” The whole thing is only roughly thirty minutes in length and as much as I like the original classical music, I can hear it anywhere.
The concert concluded with Nutcaracker’s “Trepak” in its original form followed by Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and a sing along for the holidays.
Overall, a nice way for families to come together and introduce their kids to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn while remembering where these masters of jazz got their inspiration from by including several of the original classical pieces. Plus watching Step Afrika! was an added bonus. Nutcracker with a swinging sax section, musical holiday bliss.
Running Time: 50 minutes with no intermission.
Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker was a one time only event at the Music Center at Strathmore on December 6th 2014.
For future events at Strathmore, click here.
For upcoming BSO events, click here.