Mark Morris has had an ongoing relationship with Cal Performances in Berkeley, California since 1987 and he often premieres new work here before taking it back to New York. Cal Performances has also been very supportive of Morris’s fanatic desire for live music, the most memorable instances being Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project collaboration Kolam and also having the renowned cellist in the ensemble that played Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44 to accompany Morris’s V.
Friday night I see Morris’s The Hard Nut for the fourth time and am expecting to hear Robert Cole, former Director of Cal Performances, conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra as he has done in the past. As soon as the overture begins I am astounded, and having neglected to read all of the program, I stare at the back of the conductor’s head hoping to recognise him. His interpretation more than validates a theory that Nutcracker is the best ballet for a blind person, the richness of the score making any visuals redundant. There is no comparison between this sublime performance and the rather sad rendering I heard at San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker the week before when Martin West and the SF Ballet Orchestra barely rose above the mundane, and by the second act descended into dragging tempi, muddy ensemble playing and even blaring wrong notes in missed entrances. The musical magician is Maestro George Cleve, with an international reputation for his conducting of Mozart and founder of the Midsummer Mozart Festival among many other achievements. So it is no wonder that he fills the score with lightness and clarity. He shapes every phrase precisely and every player in the orchestra echoes his intentions. Even the dramatic sections – the Christmas tree growing, the battle scene – are not merely loud, the volume crescendos slowly to the high peak and then ebbs away. Cleve leaves spaces around each note so that there isn’t a thick wall of noise, but a buttressed cathedral of stained-glass tinted light. Massive and solid yet with a delicacy like iron filigree.
I always enjoy The Hard Nut even though there isn’t a lot of choreography. The combination of a stereotypical 1950s American family and their friends, and a section of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story (which was not included in the Tchaikovsky plot which followed the watered-down version by Alexandre Dumas, père) is hilarious. Then with terrific set designs by Adrianne Lobel based on the work of Charles Burns and over-the-top costumes by the Martin Pakledinaz, you can’t help laughing.
If you’ve never been to this seasonal fruitcake of a production, go just for the change from the usual Nutcrackers. If you’ve already seen it, go to hear Maestro Cleve deliver a truly unparalleled musical experience. Remember, you can always close your eyes.