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On a darker note: San Francisco Ballet's new music director Andrew Mogrelia has a love affair with Tchaikovsky that puts The Nutcracker at the top of the composer's achievements.

DO WE PAY ENOUGH attention to the score of The Nutcracker--the one by Tchaikovsky? Many of the folks who will attend perfomances of the ballet this month all around the country consider the score just another agreeably tuneful bonus for attending an annual ritual. Others deem it the sound in the pit that drives the blizzard of pirouettes a la seconde on the stage. A substantial number of people even think that that sound is called The Nutcracker Suite. Ask the man who conducts it and the response is infinitely more positive. "I can cross my heart and say I am never bored. There is something to find on every page of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and something different in every performance," says Andrew Mogrelia. "The score teems with energy and invention. You can constantly rethink the way you phrase, the way you balance, the way you pace it."

Appointed San Francisco Ballet's music director and principal conductor last May, Mogrelia knows whereof he speaks. Although over the past eighteen years he has conducted 165 performances in three countries of the Petipa/Ivanov holiday classic (to be sure, a measly amount compared to the 3,000 performances claimed by Mogrelia's SFB predecessor, the late Denis De Coteau), he has done Nutcracker in five productions (the most recent, this month in the War Memorial Opera House) and has even conducted the music from Act I in concert. He takes it very seriously, and he will tell you why he judges this the most fascinating of Tchaikovsky's dance scores, which, he insists, are the composer's greatest music.

"Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are different. Tchaikovsky was adding bars here and subtracting bars there to meet specific needs. Musically, Swan Lake is very foursquare; in Act II, you get the corps de ballet numbers and then the swan numbers. But," Mogrelia says, "Nutcracker is more than a case of eight bars here and there. Act I, especially, is through-composed. There's an overall arch compositionally; he has this amazing key scheme. In Act I, he starts in one key and ends in that key, B-flat major. Then be begins Act II in the key that is furthest away harmonically, E major. He gradually wanders away from the home key and gradually finds his way back, and you feel like you've taken a great musical journey. It's just perfection.

"And, you know," Mogrelia continues, "Nutcracker is totally neurotic music, sometimes in the most fantastic way. Listen to the grand pas de deux, or even the Snow pas de deux. From an emotional point of view, there's unimaginable power in these pages, and that gives you wonderful freedom as a performer. There's no limit to the expression you can give to the interpretation."

MOGRELIA, EVIDENTLY, believes he is there to do a lot more than beat time for finicky ballerinas. Which may explain why it took SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson almost five years to hire a successor to De Coteau, who was a beloved and respected figure in the San Francisco Bay Area community and abroad, not least for his annual conducting of the country's oldest full-length Nutcracker. A ballet music director must satisfy the company's boss and visiting choreographers as well as the dancers and the orchestral personnel, all of whom possess firm ideas of their own. In addition, he or she must be ready to advise on all matters musical, from locating obscure scores to assisting choreographers with the counts. Above all, he must be an international-level diplomat.

Mogrelia's tryout last winter in San Francisco apparently pleased all parties. For Tomasson, who spent much of his dancing career at New York City Ballet observing the close relationship between George Balanchine and his music director, Robert Irving, the post is essential to a company's artistic stature.

"What I saw in Andrew was love, energy, enthusiasm-not just about working here, but about making the orchestra better, if there were a way," says Tomasson. One of his tasks is to banish routine. "Over a run of thirty-eight performances, certain parts of Nutcracker might become a bit predictable and unexciting. If that happened, I would go to Andrew and I would say, 'Can't there be more bite? Gee, if I did this or that, musically, would it he OK?' "

A conversation with Mogrelia in his San Francisco Ballet Association Building office reveals more than enough experience to deal with such dilemmas. Born in Wales forty-five years ago, of Welsh and Indian parentage, Mogrelia has conducted for ballet companies in England, Australia, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands; last year he made his United States debut with American Ballet Theatre. Between 1992 and 2002, he served as conductor-in-residence at England's Birmingham Conservatoire [University of Central England].

HE GOT INTO the ballet world by accident shortly after he graduated from the Royal College of Music in the mid-1980s. A phone call from the company manager of London Festival Ballet was tossed off as a gag. But Mogrelia decided to play along; be went for an interview, survived an audition, and found himself conducting a matinee of Roland Petit's L'Arlesienne without an orchestral rehearsal. "It must have gone well," recalls Mogrelia. "Peter Schaufuss bounced into my dressing room and asked if I could also conduct that evening's performance, in which he was dancing."

Mogrelia's discographic reputation preceded him to San Francisco. His recordings of ballet scores, on the associated Naxos and Marco Polo labels, have won him gratitude from a host of balletomanes; most everybody knows Adam's Giselle, but where else will one ever hear the same composer's music for La Jolie Fille de Gand or La Filleule de Fees, both introduced by the original Giselle, the legendary Carlotta Grisi?

The detective work pleased Mogrelia as much as the recordings themselves. "I went to Paris four times," he says, "and each time I sat for a week in that wonderful Paris Opera Library and they brought up these huge, dusty scores, which hadn't been looked at for a hundred years." Slated to appear in stores this fall is Saint-Saens's rarely heard 1896 Javotte.

We have, until now, circled what Mogrelia calls "the $6 million question"--in the three-way relationship among conductor, choreographer, and dancer, who is the boss?

Tact dominates Mogrelia's response. "Although there is a hierarchy, there are no constraints. I can work here and express myself. Of course, if you me going to work in the theater-whether it's opera or ballet--it will always be a collaboration of artists, especially in the creation of a new work. There's no difference in conducting with varying degrees of rubato for a dancer than there is for an opera singer.

"Establishing trust is important," Mogrelia continues. "Once you and the dancers know you're working together, there's no problem. You often find that a request from a dancer for a slower tempo is really a request for phrasing. And as musicians, we are always phrasing. We do it for violin soloists, and we should do it for dancers. In this job, you learn to give a little bit."


TCHAIKOVSKY'S 1892 music for The Nutcracker can take the credit for its inextricable association (at least in North America) with the holiday season. However, despite its omnipresence in theaters and in shopping malls at this time of the year, the score has also earned an important place in the history of music for another reason--The Nutcracker was the first occasion on which the distinctive instrument called the celesta was employed in a substantial way. The instrument delivers the unearthly tinkling sonority you hear accompanying the ballerina in her variation in the grand pas de deux in Act II, the number popularly known as the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Tchaikovsky first heard the celesta during a visit to Paris in the 1880s. Patented by Auguste Mustel in 1886, the celesta is a keyboard instrument with steel bars that rest on felt supports over individual wooden resonator boxes; the bars are shuck from above with felted hammers. The range of the modern celesta is five octaves. Composers after Tchaikovsky have often used it to evoke a mystical quality or to suggest a bell-like delicacy (e.g., Richard Strauss in his opera Der Rosenkavalier). Tchaikovsky's score offers the option of substituting a piano for the celesta, a suggestion no self-respecting ballet company ever heeds.

A former music critic lot the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, Allan Ulrich is a senior editor of DANCE MAGAZINE
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Author:Ulrich, Allan
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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