Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Maestro Classics: The Nutcracker (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

As much as I love Christmas Carols, the sounds of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker evokes the magic of the holiday: images of falling snow, giant Tannenbaum that tower over party guests, and an uncle who is as generous as Father Christmas.  The score is as iconic to the Christmas season as Silent Night and sleigh bells.  Last Christmas, Jude and I worked on a Nutcracker themed unit study, and he was enchanted by a video version of the ballet that included toy soldiers who bravely battled the Mouse King and fairies that danced in the snow.  Maestro Classics has just released a new audio story version of The Nutcracker, and we happily have added it to our holiday collection.

Maestro Classics is a music series created by Stephen and Bonnie Simon to bring quality symphonic experiences to a young audience.  Scores are performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, ensuring an exquisite sound.  Their goal is to make music approachable, and instill a love for it at a young age. The Nutcracker is part of their Stories in Music series, and is suitable for all ages.

The story begins with the overture and and introduction by narrator Jim Weiss.  He gives a summary of the story and both author (E.T.A. Hoffman) and composer (Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky).   Lush music plays as Weiss animatedly sets the opening scene: excited siblings named Clara and Fritz are awaiting the start of their parents' Christmas party and the arrival of Herr Drosselmeyer and his gifts.  Rich, descriptive language combined with the familiar music transports the listener into the story. Narration flows in and out with the music; once he sets the story, Weiss' voice fades into the background, allowing the listener to imagine the dancers without interruption.

In addition to the CD, there is a 24-page liner notes booklet.  Of course, it contains the standard listing of scenes/tracks.  However, it doesn't end there.  A two-page History of Ballet discusses the origins of ballet as the dance of the 16th century French royal court, and its transformation to the professional ballet companies that so many children dream of joining.  Another section talks about the harp.  Of all the instruments in an orchestra to feature, why the harp?  Because it was one of Tchaikovsky's favorite instruments to feature in a ballet score.  Completing the "academic" features of the book is a biography of composer Tchaikovsky.  Unlike many composers, he was not a child prodigy, and it took years for him to develop his talent to the levels we enjoy today, and we learned a little about his brief life here.  There are also two fun activities included: a word scramble and a crossword puzzle.

We really enjoyed this presentation of The Nutcracker.  It is much shorter than the full-length ballet, clocking in at just under one hour, versus up to twice that for the show. However, it is not missing anything, and all of the familiar pieces are included: the parents' dance, the Mouse King, the dances in the Sugar Plum Fairy's kingdom, and the iconic Sugar Plum Fairy Pas de Deux.  You won't miss any of the story! We enjoyed the narration along with the music; Jude didn't realize that the dancer with all the sweets under her skirts was called Mother Ginger, and the sweets called Polichenelles.  (He had seen seen them in the movie version we had watched, but like most presentations, the story was told only in dance and no explanations.)  With its child-friendly length and adult-quality presentation, this CD is definitely going to be played often in our house this holiday season!

The Crew reviewed both The Nutcracker and Peter and the Wolf.  Click the banner below to read all the reviews, or follow Maestro Classics on Social Media:

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Maestro Classics Review

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