Is it possible that Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee has conducted more performances of "The Nutcracker" than just about anyone in history? McPhee came to the company in 1988, and since then he estimates he has never led fewer than 24 performances of the beloved Tchaikovsky score each year. In 27 years, that adds up to a minimum of 648 "Nutcracker" performances.
At one point, McPhee recalls, someone told him, "I bet you could be in the 'Guinness Book of World Records' for the number of 'Nutcrackers' you've done." He adds, "Robert Irving was the music director for New York City Ballet for 31 years, and I remember asking him when I was young and starting out, 'You've probably done more "Nutcrackers" than anyone in the world,' and he said, 'Yes, at this point, and probably when you die, you'll have the record.' "
But when McPhee lifts his baton at the Opera House on Friday, it may mark the start of his last full "Nutcracker" run with the company. After all, he is coming to the end of his tenure with Boston Ballet. This season, after "The Nutcracker," he'll conduct the second week of "Onegin" and all of "Swan Lake." Starting the following season, he'll be the company's music director emeritus, with his conducting schedule yet to be determined. In the meantime, the company will be bringing in guest conductors.
As he looks forward, McPhee, who turned 61 this month, can look back on more than just hundreds of "Nutcrackers." He's conducted at New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Martha Graham Dance Company, the Joffrey Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada. He's led orchestras around the world, from the Hamburg Philharmonic to the Boston Pops; currently he's also music director for the Lexington Symphony and Symphony New Hampshire. He's worked with Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, and George Balanchine. He supervised the construction and design of the new orchestra pit in both the Citi Wang Theatre and the Opera House. He was asked by Boston Ballet's board of trustees to plan the 2001-02 season as interim artistic coordinator. He led the Royal Philharmonic when Boston Ballet played the London Coliseum in 2013 and the Boston Ballet Orchestra for the company's dates last year at New York's Lincoln Center.
But he got his ballet start, he says, in 1979 with "The Nutcracker." Graham heard him conducting the Juilliard orchestra and signed him up, and when he was conducting for her company at the Metropolitan Opera House, Balanchine came backstage and asked him to conduct New York City Ballet's "Nutcracker." Even after he became resident conductor at the Joffrey Ballet, in 1982, he continued to conduct NYCB's "Nutcracker," since the Joffrey didn't have a holiday show.
In 1987, American Ballet Theatre, then headed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, was doing "The Nutcracker" in Los Angeles, and McPhee got a phone call: "Misha really wants you to conduct it." McPhee replied that he was committed to NYCB. ABT persisted: "What are your dates?" McPhee said he was doing Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. "Fine," was the response, "we'll take Wednesday night, Friday night, and Sunday. We'll have a car waiting, and we'll just take you to the airport." "I did that for two weeks," McPhee recalls, "two different versions of 'The Nutcracker.' That was the almost-killed-me 'Nutcracker' year."
There were different challenges when he arrived at Boston Ballet. About "95 percent" of the Ballet's orchestra members, he says, played with the Pops as well, so they weren't always available for "Nutcracker" performances. What's more, he discovered that for "The Nutcracker," "the company did not hire a full orchestra. They had three horns, so they would just leave out the fourth horn part. It was kind of like Swiss cheese, there were musical holes throughout the whole thing." The Ballet's finance committee told him that adding more musicians would cost too much. So he did his own arrangement of the score for a reduced number of musicians, one that would ensure, he says, "the musical integrity was intact."
After the Wang Center declined to renew the Ballet's "Nutcracker" contract, the company went to the Colonial Theatre in 2004, with a pit that, McPhee says, would hold just 14 musicians. "So we put two-thirds of the orchestra in the trap room behind the pit, and they basically watched me on the huge TV. I remember it was bitter cold a couple of times, and apparently everybody in the trap room was freezing, and they still kept playing, which was great, but they were bundled up in ski parkas."
The pit at the Opera House, where Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker" landed in 2005, initially wasn't much better. McPhee wound up under the stage, facing the audience and looking at the action on a TV monitor. It wasn't ideal. "On the TV, because of the stage lighting, all the dancers looked like little white Michelin men. They had no arms, no legs, they were these little glowing orbs that moved around."
Even through those difficult days, however, McPhee drew upon a strong musical foundation. He points out that Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker" was closely related to New York City Ballet's. "Musically the tempi were similar. And both Robert Irving and Hugo Fiorato, who were the staff conductors at City Ballet, used to come up here and do the 'Nutcrackers.' So that musical tradition for Boston when I first came in was very closely connected to NYCB. My base platform is, I learned the piece with Mr. Balanchine. He was a great musician."
Now, of course, the Boston Ballet Orchestra performs "The Nutcracker" in a reconfigured Opera House pit, one that accommodates 46 musicians for the holiday classic.
Boston Ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, declined to comment on the reason for McPhee's departure. Of McPhee's "Nutcracker," Nissinen said, "He knows the score incredibly well and he brings it alive. He makes it rich and colorful. I bet Tchaikovsky would be very happy."
Asked why he's leaving, McPhee said only, "I am very proud of the work I have participated in over my 27 years at Boston Ballet and prefer to focus my energies on what comes next for me. There are many people I will miss at the Ballet: musicians, dancers, staff, and patrons, and I hope the company continues to prosper and grow."
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House,
Nov. 27-Dec. 31. Tickets $35-$199. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org