Guiding the orchestras during this weekend's "Nutcracker" performances will be two conductors with Baltimore connections.
It's a homecoming for Andrew Grams. The Baltimore School for the Arts alum — class of '95 — will be on the podium for his alma mater's production at the Modell/Lyric, conducting the Baltimore Symphony.
"My high school years were some of the best years of my life," says Grams, 36. "It will be a lot of fun being back to do this."
Grams, who became music director of the Elgin (Ill.) Symphony this season, has a considerable history with "Nutcracker." As violinist in the New York City Ballet Orchestra for several years, he performed the work close to 300 times. "I was young and had no money so I happily played eight performances a week," he says.
Last year, Grams conducted the orchestra he used to be in when the company presented its annual "Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center ("Facing my colleagues was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever had to do"). All of that exposure to Tchaikovsky's score has not made him jaded.
"It's great music that I never get tired of," Grams says. "One of the things I love the most is the transitional music at the end of the battle scene [with the mice] in Act 1 that leads to the most delicate of waltzes, the 'Waltz of the Snowflakes.'"
Lee Mills, who is conducting the performances of Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker" at the Hippodrome, feels much the same.
"The music tends to be trivialized at the holidays," Mills, 26, says. "But I think this is one of the great works to come out of the 19th century. Ballet composers before Tchaikovsky wrote music that was usually secondary to the dancing. This score has a lot of integrity on its own. And Tchaikovsky's personality really comes through, just like in his symphonies."
Mills, who did graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory and is now music director of the Towson University Symphony Orchestra, will face quite a test this weekend, along with the Moscow Ballet dancers — there will be three performances back to back on Saturday.
"I like to think everything will be fine," the conductor says, "but we'll find out."
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