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A Nutcracker Perspective from the Orchestra Pit

by Ann Lobotzke, harpest in Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra
I’ve been principal harpist for the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra since 1983. A while back I realized that I’ve played for The Nutcracker for over half my life! Now I can’t imagine a December without it. Although I don’t have an exact number, I estimate that I have performed Tchaikovsky’s masterful ballet score over six hundred times. The various productions that we have had through the years keeps it fresh for the orchestra. Each choreographer has a different vision of the show. For the orchestra each production may require different tempi for the various dances, cuts in the music, or a different order to the charming divertissements in the second act. We pride ourselves on our ability to remain attentive and flexible to the demands of the choreography and the different dancers.

The score of The Nutcracker features one of the most famous harp solos ever written, the cadenza in the Waltz of the Flowers. A cadenza is a moment during which the orchestra pauses and a single instrument is featured. In this case, there is a lilting harp solo which leads into the well known theme in the Waltz of the Flowers. This is the highlight of every performance for me. Other personal favorite moments are the majestic Pas de Deux in Act 2, and the transition into the snow scene in Act 1.

The performance keeps the musicians fully occupied. If, for a few minutes we are tacet, or not playing, we can try to sneak a peek at the stage. Generally we are not able to see much from the pit. Through the years I have gone to watch technical rehearsals early in the run for which a piano, rather than the orchestra, is used. This is my only chance to sit and enjoy the show.

I started playing harp when I was in high school, and it was the third instrument that I studied. I started piano when I was in grade school, then flute in the high school band. I discovered a harp in a practice room at school one day and began my studies shortly thereafter. Something about the harp clicked for me. Like playing for The Nutcracker, it’s hard to remember what my life was like before I began playing the harp. I’ve played second and substitute harp for the Milwaukee Symphony for even longer than I’ve been with the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. I also play for various freelance orchestras in town, as well as for touring shows, name acts, and Skylight Opera.

This is the busiest time of year for musicians. In addition to playing for The Nutcracker, our musicians are found all around the town playing for holiday parties, church services, and other orchestras. Many of the musicians teach as well, and will often teach lessons between performances.

We try to make playing for The Nutcracker a fun experience. Our English Horn player brings in a lighted nutcracker figure to decorate the pit. The Nutty Nutcrackers staged in the past gave rise to opportunities for some discreet fun. The tuba player has been known to insert duck calls between the clock chimes of the first act. Other musicians would don Arab headgear for the Arabian divertissement, or floral headbands for the Waltz of the Flowers. I was the target for a memorable prank during Nutty Nutcracker. As I completed my harp cadenza, there came a roar of laughter. I turned to see that the entire brass section had held up Olympic style score cards, grading my cadenza!

Ann Lobotzke
Harpest, Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra