‘Tis the season for an abundance of music that includes beloved traditions: Handel’s oratorio Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Both pieces are holiday staples performed year after year. After year.
Cincinnati is no exception when it comes to these classics but there’s a big difference. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is the house ensemble for the ballet and the oratorio, along with a full concert schedule. This is not your average orchestra. Just take a look at their December lineup.
Earlier this month, alto saxophonist Branford Marsalis joined the CSO for a pair of concerts. Singer Amy Grant headlined last weekend’s Pops holiday concerts and this weekend, the CSO performs Handel’s Messiah with the May Festival Chorus, including a concert in Mason.
But there’s more. The CSO is the official orchestra for eight performances of Cincinnati Ballet’s annual production of Nutcracker. The holiday season ends with a New Year’s Eve extravaganza, “La Vie Parisienne,” with singers, dancers and French froth.
The CSO is one of a small number of orchestras who cover this range of music at any time of the year. The Boston and Chicago Symphonies and the New York Philharmonic may have holiday concerts, but none take on such diverse programming. And not only will the music be wide-ranging, the CSO will work with four different conductors.
“There are very few orchestras with the kind of musicianship that our musicians have,” says Pops conductor John Morris Russell in a phone interview. “The fact that we’re able to do it all so extraordinarily well is a tribute to the quality of our musicians.”
Clarinetist Jonathan Gunn agrees. Now in his ninth season with the CSO, his second as acting principal, he wrote in an email, “As an orchestra, we excel at playing a classical program one week, then quickly switching gears and playing Pops and then perhaps right back again.”
The younger generation of CSO players has no issue with crossover.
“New arrangements of well-known tunes always keep things fun,” wrote violinist Janet Carpenter, a first-year orchestra member. “They often call for that rich, warm string sound where we can play our hearts out.”
Crossing genres may generate an adrenaline rush but maintaining that excitement over repeated performances is a perennial challenge.
“It is joyful, wonderful stuff but it can get tiresome,” wrote Sam Schlosser, assistant principal and second trombone. “Keeping it fresh is something we all face.”
For each musician I interviewed, the music is the answer.
“I’ve lost track of how many Nutcrackers I’ve done but I’m well past 100, perhaps around 150,” said Gunn. “Although I’ve played it many times, it is wonderful music, some of Tchaikovsky’s best. Honestly, it never gets boring to play that ballet.”
He adds the lament of pit musicians: “I do wish that I could actually see it!”
Nutcracker fatigue hasn’t hit flutist Leah Arsenault, now in her second season with the CSO. “This will only be my third season playing it,” she says, admitting, “A run of 15 shows can be daunting for any of us.”
“It’s first and foremost a ballet piece but it’s also an orchestral showcase that provides many beautiful and challenging moments for all the musicians.”
Childhood memories of seeing the ballet and participating in productions along with her brothers. And as a flutist, she gets to play some of the most memorable passages.
“You can’t mention Nutcracker without thinking of the Chinese Dance or the Dance of the Reed Flutes. These numbers are always highlights for me,” Arsenault says.
Janet Carpenter is looking forward to the challenges in playing her first full performance of Nutcracker. “It requires a lightness of tone in the Overture and other times, it needs a fuller sound, as in ‘The Waltz of the Flowers.’”
Her colleagues agree that it’s the music keeps them from burning out.
“Something will always be different and new,” said Gunn. “This is one of the great joys of making music.”
John Morris Russell takes his inspiration from conductor Murry Sidlin. “He said, ‘Your responsibility as a performer is to make sure that the first-time audience member has an extraordinary experience and you leave the person who’s there for the last time with the sweetest of memories.’”
“You always re-invent yourself each time the lights go on. That’s what being a performer is all about.”
CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA performs Handel’s Messiah Saturday and Sunday and accompanies Cincinnati Ballet in The Nutcracker Friday through Dec. 23. Tickets and more info: cincinnatisymphony.org.