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A while back our little family witnessed a musical crime that ended in us leaving the scene before the performance was done. Unfortunately we were privy to another a few weeks ago, this time in New York City.
The scene of the crime? The New York City Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."
I'm not talking about the murder of the hideous mouse king...on stage...with a shoe and a sword. And no, I'm not talking about the abduction of Marie from her cozy home to the world of the Sugarplum Fairy. The crime I'm talking about wasn't a fictional crime, it was a work of non-fiction. Get out your notebook and take notes. Here's what happened:
The first act was magical - the beautiful hall, the excited children all dressed in their fancy holiday dresses taking it all in with wide eyes, the costumes, the sets, the magical growing Christmas tree, and the wonderful orchestra. I was on cloud nine as I alternated between watching what was happening onstage and watching my daughter's radiant face. We got through the battle scene, breathless but triumphant, and found ourselves on the verge of being swept off to the snow-laced forest along with the Nutcracker and Marie when all of a sudden my head couldn't help but stare in confusion at the orchestra pit. At one of the most magical moments of the entire ballet, at least in my opinion, where a childrens' choir typically sings a simple but glorious line repeatedly, the New York City Ballet had for some reason swapped out the live singers and replaced them with a synthesizer player! Normally it's hard to upset me when it comes to performances and I don't like to be critical of anyone making music but this particular infraction completely pulled me out of my happily transfixed state.
Now I admit that a few weeks earlier I had played the celesta and harp part on a synthesizer at a local production in southwest Virginia and there was no choir used then either. I wasn't really content about that either but I realized the challenges that come with pulling that off in such a small community. But in New York City? Really? In the famous Balanchine production that is done year after year to sold out audiences and that is available on DVD and that we've watched time and time again with our daughter?
I understand that the economy isn't in great shape right now and that everyone is struggling. Perhaps a children's choir seems frivolous in light of where we are as a country right now. Maybe there's an issue with the unions or perhaps something fell through at the last minute. What I do know is that everyone in my family was shocked when we got to that spot and didn't hear that unreproducible sound of children's voices. I imagine that there were others in attendance that also noticed the difference. And although I wouldn't say it ruined the whole performance because it is, after all, an incredibly stunning production, it certainly hasn't left my mind.
So what are some possible solutions?
- Donors could be asked to sponsor a children's choir?
- The audience could be taught before the show how to sing the part. (It's not that hard!)
- The orchestra could sing while playing?
- A recording of a children's choir could be used?
- Music students, amateurs, or professional musicians that are looking for things to do could volunteer their time?
I have to imagine that there is a better solution than having someone dress in a tux and come to each and every performance to play that one part on the synthesizer. As a synthesizer colleague I venture to guess that playing that part was just as painful for the player as it was for us in the audience. So why do that to everyone? Why not splurge in the name of the holidays, New York City, and great ballet? Then I we wouldn't all have sugarplums and synthesizers dancing in our heads.