The Nutcracker was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) in 1892 for a two-act ballet. Nine of the numbers from the ballet were selected by Tchaikovsky to form The Nutcracker Suite independently of the ballet and were debuted months earlier. It was very popular from the start, particularly “Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy.” During the swing era, the Larry Clinton Orchestra (1940) and the John Kirby Sextet (calling their 1941 version “Bounce Of The Sugar Plums”) made notable recordings of that theme. Probably the first jazz group to record the full Nutcracker Suite was the Les Brown Orchestra which recorded versions in 1952 and 1958. Trumpeter Shorty Rogers documented his rendition of what he called The Swinging Nutcracker in 1960, 23 days before the Duke Ellington Orchestra began recording for their full-length album.
The Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite has dwarfed all other post-Tchaikovsky versions. Few remember the Brown and Rogers adaptations and all other jazz renditions since then have had to at least pay tribute to the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangements.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall during the Christmas season, advertised that they were going to perform both the Tchaikovsky and the Ellington/Strayhorn versions of The Nutcracker Suite, with half of the evening dedicated to each. Its conductor Gustavo Dudamel was typically enthusiastic and colorful. It was enjoyable watching the 84 musicians of the L.A. Philharmonic close up during the classical half. The flute and clarinet players were particularly impressive and, near the end of the suite, 35 young vocalists came out to sing the closing themes, helping to bring the suite to a climax. It was also a little humorous watching the three percussionists. One played tympani while the other two mostly sat and waited patiently for the exact moment when their cymbal crashes and drum rolls were needed.
The second half of the night was intriguing but only partly successful. It started joyfully with the swinging Ellington/Strayhorn transformation of “Dance Of The Reed Pipes” into “Toot Toot Tootie Toot.” Jeff Tyzik’s arrangements of the Ellington/Strayhorn adaptations at times had the L.A. Philharmonic sounding a little like the Duke Ellington Orchestra (utilizing a walking bass and a drummer), if one did not listen too closely! An unidentified saxophonist hinted at tenor-saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and one of the clarinetists soloed in a cool-toned harmonically advanced manner that was similar to Jimmy Hamilton’s style. The brass section used plunger mutes at times although with less conviction than Ray Nance. There were some short solos taken along the way and such pieces as “Dance Of The Floreadores” (“Waltz Of The Flowers”) and “Sugar Rum Cherry” (“Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy”) worked well.
But the music never quite crossed over into jazz, and became conservative as the Philharmonic shifted back to playing classical music. Only five of the pieces were explored in the second half and the final 15 minutes found the orchestra playing the ballet score, forgetting all about Ellington or attempting to swing.
The decision to play it safe was a bit disappointing and the potential of the night was not really fulfilled. But along the way, there was a lot of glorious music was heard and Tchaikovsky’s themes, 130 years after they were composed, still sound timeless.