It’s taking all my strength, but somehow I’m going to pull myself away from the rabid frenzy over the Grammy nominations for the classical category — “What! Michael Tilson Thomas! What!” — and focus on the season at hand.
It’s not a time to break from tradition. Maybe we tweak those traditions every now and then, but no one wants Chilean sea bass at Christmas dinner. No one suggests that maybe the colors should be teal and purple this year or that Santa should wear bicycle shorts. Which is all well and good.
Of course, for artists, Christmas is a time to trot out the same pieces “forever and ever” — in order to pay the bills.
Last weekend, a scaled-down version of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra went on a whirlwind tour of the tri-county area, performing Handel’s Messiah, as symphonies do at this time every year. Crowds at the Citadel, James Island Presbyterian, and St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville leapt to their feet during the Hallelujah chorus, recognizable from its myriad comic appearances as a movie and sitcom sound bite.
CSO violist Jill King is 29 and has played the Messiah only a dozen or so times. Unlike Pachelbel’s Canon, the wedding standard she can play in her sleep, she finds the Christmas cash cow a beautiful piece, one she enjoys trying to play better each time, something Resident Conductor Scott Terrell pushes for.
“I can’t imagine what it will be like playing it 10 years from now,” King says. “I guess that’s one of our challenges as musicians, to keep it fresh.”
The jumping to the feet bit is said to have been started by King George II, who was so moved at the premiere that he stood, obliging all his subjects to stand as well. A little debunking may be in order, though: He probably wasn’t even there. No one knows why we stand, including the concertgoers who often leave immediately afterwards, thinking it’s over.
Speaking of lords-a-leaping, a lot of dance companies would be hurting without a particular piece of holiday classical music.
On the plus side, the consensus is that Tchaikovsy’s Nutcracker introduces ballet to the hoi polloi, as well as filling the stage with a diversity of dancers from six to 60. And what better composer to have associated with Christmas than the sometimes syrupy, easily upset Tchaikovsky? (While I’m on a debunking kick: It is in fact not true that suicide rates increase in December, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.)
And since the original choreography from the 1892 premiere is so well-documented, many ballet people say The Nutcracker is great for experimentation. (Although some say sexualizing young Clara such that she might be having an affair with Herr Drosselmeyer is too creepy.) Plus, did I mention the money?
But The Nutcracker is the piece ballet dancers love to hate. Ever notice there’s no story? Even Tchaikovsky said: “I like the plot of The Nutcracker — not at all.” (It’s based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, later adapted by Alexandre Dumas.) Online, I found some comments from Bravo’s Footnotes series, made by Ivan Nagy, who danced with the New York City and American Ballets. Growing up in Hungary, he says The Nutcracker was performed every Sunday year-round. So maybe he has the right to be a little grumpy.
“It’s a disease,” Nagy says. “Because I think the commercialization of Christmas, you know. Because every Hicksville little town is doing a version of The Nutcracker … When I hear the music, which is so beautiful, really beautiful, I start getting eczema.”

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