The magic spell of "Nutcracker" begins after the lights go down and before the curtain rises. From the orchestra pit come the delicate strains of Tchaikovsky's overture, a deliciously playful, lightly flicked tune.

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The magic spell of “Nutcracker” begins after the lights go down and before the curtain rises, before a dancer has set a toe on stage. From the orchestra pit come the delicate strains of Tchaikovsky’s overture, a deliciously playful, lightly flicked tune, with instruments seemingly chasing each other in happy anticipation.

“It’s music that is absolutely unique,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet music director and conductor Stewart Kershaw of the overture, noting that its style is not repeated again in the ballet. “It reminds me a little bit of a music box — you open the lid and here it is, it sets the stage. I think it’s [Tchaikovsky’s] way of saying, ‘Welcome to my toy box, because I’m going to astonish you now with some of the tricks and games and toys that I have for you.’ “

PNB’s “Nutcracker,” with its trademark sets by Maurice Sendak and choreography by Kent Stowell, begins its 24th annual run at McCaw Hall this Friday. And Kershaw’s been there since the beginning. He’s been at his post at PNB since December 1983, making his debut with the company with the world premiere of the Sendak/Stowell work.

The path to mastery

A native of Oxford, England, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music, Kershaw has worked with many of the great ballet companies around the world. In 1966, he began his career as a ballet conductor with London’s Royal Ballet, presiding over performances of such greats as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. He conducted his first “Nutcracker” at the Stuttgart Ballet, where he was music director from 1973 to 1980, and remembers the John Neumeier choreography as “so weird and so strange. I hated it.” Other posts included American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera and several symphony orchestras before arriving at PNB.

He’s now a familiar figure to McCaw Hall audiences — a tall man with an elegant sweep of silver hair and a way of wielding a baton that seems both masterful and perfectly natural. At 66, Kershaw says he’s conducted about 650 “Nutcracker” performances in his career, of which 554 have been with PNB. At his 500th PNB performance in December 2003, his orchestra presented him with a keepsake: a silver key ring, engraved with his initials, the date 12-28-2003 and the words “500th Nutcracker.”

Still a thrill

With such intense familiarity with the work, you’d think he might have had enough of Tchaikovsky’s score, and Kershaw admits there are “a few pages” he’s grown tired of. But there’s much that he loves, even after so many years. “It’s a masterpiece,” he says of the score.

“I get a thrill down my spine, for instance, at every performance at the end of the fight scene, with the change into what we call the Snow Pas de Deux, where the princess meets the prince for the first time. It’s one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspirational pieces of music that he ever wrote. I always refer to it as the great C Major.”

“At the end of that, it’s followed immediately by the snowflake waltz — once again, an absolute masterpiece. Every time I do it, hearing the snowflakes rushing through the orchestra, the theme that is taken from the bass trombone over to the French horns to the winds and then of course, the singers … ” He smiles, clearly hearing the music in his head. “What a divine inspiration that he had to introduce singers into a ballet score.”

Must. Keep. Concentrating.

Kershaw, who will share conducting duties during this run with PNB associate conductor Allan Dameron and guest conductor Ian Eisendrath, admits that one of the ballet’s challenges is concentration. With the music long ago committed to memory (he said he hasn’t used the printed score for 25 years), the danger is that the performance can become too familiar. “For the musicians as well, we’re all on autopilot. You find your mind wandering,” he said.

With any other ballet, concentration is automatic, but with “Nutcracker,” he admits to thinking “after a couple of weeks” about food, about upcoming vacations, about needing to take shirts to the laundry. “Very mundane things. Your mind begins to address those things, and wham! Something may happen, not necessarily on stage; it may happen in the pit. That element of concentration is tiring; you have to concentrate on concentrating to achieve a perfect performance.”

Conducting challenges

With the swirling activity on the “Nutcracker” stage, it’s easy for audiences to forget the logistic challenge the ballet presents in the pit as well. Orchestra personnel director Rodger Burnett must schedule 54 musicians for each of 43 performances, drawn from a pool of about 100 individuals (members of the PNB orchestra and freelance substitutes). Kershaw schedules the three conductors and four singers. Weather can be a complicating factor — he remembers a performance some years ago that had to be initially conducted by the tuba player, when an ice storm delayed the conductor — as can illness.

But in general, he says, the last few years have gone very smoothly. “I’m so wonderfully proud of our orchestra,” he said. “It’s a tough nut to crack — especially with 43 performances!”

Constant evolutions

Looking back on that first production, Kershaw notes that many of the children in the 1983 performance are likely now adults with their own children, and speaks fondly of “all the little Claras” he has watched come and go. During the ballet’s final bow, he joins the cast on stage and bows next to young Clara, holding her hand. Some of the young ballerinas are calm, he says, and some clutch his hand frantically. “I think they’ve just gotten to the absolute pinnacle of theatrical expressiveness,” he says, “and somehow they just don’t want to let go.”

For all those children — and all those adults who’ve loved “Nutcracker” over the years — the Tchaikovsky music instantly creates a memory of a magical evening of dance and theater: a swelling Christmas tree, a Mouse King, a princess transported to a sugarplum kingdom. And for Kershaw, it still casts a spell. “It’s a continuously evolving and revolving kaleidoscope of orchestral colors that shimmer,” he says of the score. “It is a delight.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com