The now infamous score by Peter Tchaikovsky conjures many layers of memory and meaning for me. I've played it no less than 400 times. That's not much compared to longer runs of Broadway shows, but it's plenty for me. That's around 20 times a year for 20 years. Plenty.
Luckily it's a great score. Each number is vivid and colorful. There are no bad moments, although it IS ballet. And all classical ballet scores from that period contain appropriately corny themes and often repetitive material. It goes with the territory. But Peter T. imbues his lilting ballet themes with memorable melodies and meaningful repetition.
The clarinet part is well written, with a number of respectable solos, most notably in the famous Waltz of the Flowers, which fits like a glove onto the instrument's tessitura. Other solos make good use the clarinet's technical fluidity. As with all Tchaikovsky, the part has some challenges. Some runs are very awkward. But their use is clear and meaningful, and so the effort is worth it.
My first few years in the Kennedy Center Orchestra, when I was young and full of myself, I used to become bored by so many performances. To stay interested, I would add all sorts of extra notes, trills, runs, obligatos, counter melodies, harmonies, alternate octaves, etc. It was the David H. Thomas personal version. I had fun doing it, and no one seemed to mind. My colleagues, all seasoned players, were entertained, being bored themselves. Most of what I did fit into the music just fine, so the audience certainly never knew, unless of course they were Nutcracker experts!
When I arrived in Columbus, I played my version just as I had in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues here, a certain flutist who has since moved away, complained about it to the music director. So he called me into his office and sat me down. He looked like a proud father. I was confused. He smiled at me and told me he understood my boredom and appreciated my creative spirit, and that we would someday play the Nutcracker in a concert version, but for now I should try to behave. Whew! So I behaved, for awhile. The flutist in question left town. (hey, it wasn't me) But I never went back to goofing around quite so much. I guess I grew up a bit, and realized I had to consider the effects I had on my fellow musicians. I was getting old enough now to feel I needed to be an example of respectability. And I had no problem with that. It was a natural step.
These days I rarely fool around. Maybe the last show of a run, but hardly even then. The young players give me dirty looks when I do. Their loss.
I love playing the Nutcracker. Yes, it's true. The clarinet part is satisfying and rewarding, both musically and technically. Over the years I've honed my interpretations to just the way I like it. Of course the way I like it may not be the way the conductor likes it, but I can usually find a happy middle ground. These days I use the numerous performances to refine my playing. I meditate while performing this piece. I take note of how my fingers move, how deep my support is. I notice the ideal tuning place for each note. I observe my embouchure. With all these things I try to notice how close to the ideal they are. And I use the advantage of another performance, and another, to correct and refine those basic techniques.
I'm not quite to the point of just sitting back and listening to the rich and colorful score while in performance. No, I still need to be in my body, focused and poised just so for each solo. Maybe someday I'll dance right along with the sugar plum fairys as I play. I have something to look forward to.