Mischa Santora, Boston Ballet’s new music director, will make his official company conducting debut Nov. 29, opening night of this season’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
Fun fact No. 1: Santora’s parents never took him to see “The Nutcracker” as a child. Fun fact No. 2: He has never conducted the complete ballet. And fun fact No. 3: He will be making up for No. 2 by conducting 37 of this season’s 40 performances. So he’s starting his Boston Ballet career with a bang.
Santora’s parents, he wants us to understand, are not anti-“Nutcracker.” He comes from a musical family: “My dad is a violinist, my mom’s a pianist, they’re both retired now. My brother’s a cellist, and I started out as a violinist.” But he grew up in Lucerne, Switzerland, which he describes as “really small. They have a theater there, and my dad played in the orchestra for a long time. But because the theater was so small, they were limited in what they could do. So something like ‘Nutcracker,’ which is a gigantic show, would just simply not work.”
Santora turned to conducting at age 21, after a hand injury put an end to his projected career as a violinist. Did he ever imagine that he’d be conducting “Nutcracker”?
“No,” he acknowledges, “but I will say that I have always admired the score. I have conducted a whole bunch of ‘Nutcracker’ excerpts, and it is such a miraculous score. The fact that it is overplayed shouldn’t diminish its quality. I love E. T. A. Hoffmann [whose 1816 novella “Nutcracker and Mouse King” is the source of the story], and then of course Tchaikovsky puts his own personal magic brush on the whole thing.”
He really is enthusiastic about the score. “It’s easy for the musicologist crowd to say, ‘Well, you know, it’s just good tunes,’ ” he continues. “Well, first of all, to write a really great tune is not so easy. And there’s plenty of them here. So that’s No. 1. And a more extended portion like the fight scene with the mice and soldiers in Act One is very impressive orchestral writing on its own, it’s almost a little symphonic tone poem. Tchaikovsky is using a lot of his greatest skills and experience to write this score, going through some of his symphonies and operas from earlier on — I think it’s kind of a distillation of his aesthetic and his orchestration. It’s masterful.”
Conducting the “Nutcracker” score is one thing, of course; conducting the ballet is quite another. “I’ll need to really get to know the choreography and the tempos and the different dancers and the different casts,” Santora says. “Different casts might do different sections at different tempos — that was something that was very important in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ last spring. So right now I try to attend as many dance rehearsals as I can. I don’t even take my score down there, I’m just observing and trying to get a feel for everything.
“One of the trickier parts is how do you start a new section, a new movement. Do we start it? Do I take a cue from the dancers? And if so, what is exactly that cue? So for instance we were discussing the other day the Russian dance, and apparently the downbeat of the Russian dance has to come midair for the gentlemen. So I’m still trying to work that out.”
Meanwhile, he’s discovering a personal reason to reconnect with “The Nutcracker.” “We have a six-year-old daughter, she is definitely an aspiring ballerina, and she has loved this piece ever since she was a year and a half, and so we’ve been watching various productions on video and TV. And I thought, you know, looking at it through her eyes, and the magic of the story and the music and the movement and the lighting and the scary parts with the mice, I guess I’m visiting my own childhood a little bit. And there’s actually something really wonderful about that.”
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, Nov. 29-Dec. 30. Tickets start at $37. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org