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Friday, December 28, 2007

Is The Nutcracker the first great pop album or what? Tunes tunes tunes tunes tunes galore. Lively tone colors. Exoticism, nature, romance. Family, love, dread, sexual anxiety. Dreamlife, giant mice, international fantasy, coming of age. Baby that is rock and roll!

My family went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet production designed by Maurice Sendak today, taking the almost-5-year-old for the first time. He was absorbed throughout, and I was thrilled and moved -- several times my heart beat in excitement at the music, the dancing, and the stagecraft, and twice tears came to my eyes -- unexpectedly.

On the way to the theater I called my mom, who is visiting a cousin in Arkansas and arrived safely today, to tell her we were going. She said that she had sung in the chorus 25 years ago in a production in Kalamazoo, during the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.”

So it may be because of the familial connection that that scene especially delighted today, but I loved the nature-music and the nature-dancing. Snowflakes! Flurrying about, in the music and on the stage, all those swift and skillful dancers. I thought of 20th century efforts toward the music of nature, but the tradition goes back through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at least. Still -- love that musical, terpsichorean snow.

And all the hits! A lithe and lively overture that Duke Ellington dug so much that he made two different arrangements of it. The March, the Dance of the Reeds, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Trepak, the Waltz of the Flowers, the Snowflakes -- they just keep on coming.

“Tunesmith” and “composer” really do have different job descriptions. Tunesmithing requires a gift for melody, composing does not. Historically, composers have felt no compunction whatsoever in lifting tunes from the “folk” or the “pop”-ulace, the only difference now is that copyright laws compel Philip Glass to pay royalties to David Bowie and Brian Eno when he “borrows” their pop songs.

Lots of composers hate Tchaikovsky, one of the all-time great tunesmiths. Great orchestrator too -- and -- how’s this for pop? -- he raced to complete the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in order to beat Rimsky-Korsakov to the use of the exotic new chime-sounding keyboard, the celeste, which Tchaikovsky had heard in Paris.

The most famous music from Shakespeare’s England is a pop song written by an unknown tunesmith -- “Greensleeves,” still sung today, and beautiful.

I’m a tune guy. I love Tchaikovsky. And I love what composers do too. In 20th-century pop, pre-rock division, the tunesmith wrote the melodies and chords, and for the Broadway and Hollywood productions, an “arranger” wrote the orchestrations and variations and dramatic builds and crashes. In the 19th-century composer’s world, the arranger would have gotten the glory. Since copyright laws got tougher in the last century, the songwriter has gotten top billing in that milieu.

Composers of course do lots else too.

* * *

The dream of Clara -- the girl to whom the eponymous toy is given as a Christmas present by her eerie magician godfather -- proceeds from the attack of the giant mice through a gorgeous Sendak dream boatride to an opulent exotic tourist locale and then a romantic dance of love. The exotica delights completely unconvincingly -- that isn’t Arabian music, but it’s lovely! That isn’t Chinese, but it is sweet; I recognize exotic, castanet-laden Spain, and that’s terrific too.

The love duet that follows feels anti-climactic -- how predictable it seems -- and the music feels like a heavy ‘30s film weepie after the tastier exoticisms; but I notice that the melody is prettier than the Hollywood norm, and then a cymbal crashes as the orchestra swoops dramatically and the prince shoots the dream-Clara high above his head, and I cried. They got me!

Sendak took liberties with the traditional scenario. The Arabian Dance has nothing to do with Arabia and instead is a gorgeous peahen dance. So I don’t know whether the ending suddenly shifting to Clara waking up after the dream is in the original, but it got me again -- all that preceded is the dreamlife of a girl on the edge of adolescence, her fears and yearnings and curious imagination.

And it occurred to me: The classic dream tales of the last 200 years are of girls: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, Clara in the Land of Sweets. You go, girls.

Photos of the PNB Sendak-designed production from 2005 by Angela Sterling, Seattle Times.

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