Few things evoke the holiday spirit quite like the instantly recognizable “Nutcracker” score. Composed in 1892 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the iconic music plays as important a role in the show as the dancing itself. And, like the dancers, the members of the orchestra maintain a rigorous schedule throughout “The Nutcracker” season. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, the musicians play nearly 40 shows from the end of November through December. On weekends, this often means performing twice in one day.

Due to the complexity of “The Nutcracker” score, a full orchestra is needed to execute the music — so the orchestra features every instrument and is the same size as that of a symphony performance. “We have 54 musicians in our ‘Nutcracker’ orchestra, and every part that Tchaikovsky wrote is played and covered,” says Emil de Cou, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s principal conductor and music director.

De Cou is in the studio weeks before the curtain rises on any production. The orchestra receives the music a month in advance, but he explains that most musicians have been playing “The Nutcracker” practically since they were kids, so the process is a little different. “Unlike any of the other repertoire pieces, we have only one rehearsal two days before opening night,” de Cou says. “So people have to come totally prepared.”

Emil de Cou, Pacific Northwest Ballet conductor and music director. (Lindsay Thomas photo)
Emil de Cou, Pacific Northwest Ballet conductor and music director. (Lindsay Thomas photo)

Ballet is an art that requires extraordinary precision and concentration from each and every dancer, and the same is true for every musician in the orchestra pit. “As a performer and conductor you have to be totally engaged because no matter how many times you play, it can get slightly off or feel like it’s gonna fall apart,” de Cou says.

Certain scenes are more technically difficult than others. For example, the fantasy battle scene in which toy soldiers fight the Mouse King is extremely complicated, as is the Snow Scene which immediately follows.

It’s clearly important for dancers to remain “in character” no matter what happens, but musicians need to do the same in order to successfully express the mood of each scene. This means constant, quick adjustments, especially in the ballet’s second act.

“Because there are different characters every few minutes, we have to completely change our character as musicians so the dancers can successfully convey their roles,” explains Mona Butler, bassoonist and PNB’s music librarian. She has played “The Nutcracker” every year since 1985. “[In Act II] we’ll go from ‘Sugarplum,’ which is very twinkly, to ‘Russian,’ which is lots of boot-kicking and dancers jumping up and down. The Arabian dance is very sultry, and of course there’s the Mother Ginger scene with all the kids scurrying out from under her skirt. That is just wickedly difficult and fast because we have to sound kind of frenzied, just like the kids running all over the stage.”

One of the reasons “The Nutcracker” has remained such a popular holiday tradition is that it’s equally enjoyable for both children and adults. There’s a whimsical quality to the story as well as the accompanying score. As de Cou explains, a major reason for this is because Tchaikovsky himself always maintained a childlike persona. “He was very close to his nieces and nephews,” de Cou says. “When he’d go to his sister’s house and play with them, they’d make up a ballet or story and he’d make up music and they’d dance around and pantomime.”

Behind the scenes: Ballet hair and makeup

Both de Cou and Butler love interacting with the children who attend “The Nutcracker” performances. De Cou always makes sure to stay in the orchestra pit both before the show and during intermission because kids come down and look over the rail. “They’re looking at the instruments and asking their parents about them,” he says. “So I talk to the kids, and if they reach over the pit rail I’ll let them use the baton to practice ‘conducting.’ ”

Butler says engaging with the children in the audience is important to her because it’s often their first exposure to symphonic music. There’s sometimes a perception that a symphony is inaccessible for children. “But when young people and young families come and hear a live symphony for the first time, you can hear and feel the enthusiasm from the audience,” she said. “It’s so cool as musicians when we feel how excited the audience is to hear what we love, which is our music.”

Spend your holidays with PNB! See “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.