Desert Companion

Never Boring


Six questions for Jack Gaughan, the man behind the music behind The Nutcracker

This month, Jack Gaughan will direct the live musical accompaniment to Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker for the sixth time. But his experience with the classic Tchaikovsky score goes back further than that — much further, to age 7, when he performed it at a piano recital. His first time conducting it for a ballet was in the mid-1970s. Is it still special? Yes, Gaughan told Desert Companion, for one simple reason: It’s beautiful, complicated music.


Why is The Nutcracker so enduringly popular?

It has to do with the magic, the fantasy part of the story. It’s every kid’s dream to be either a princess or Prince Charming, and there’s a lot of that element in the show, as well as teapots coming alive. It’s the feeling of experiencing magic, more than remembering anything specific about the play. And the music helps. “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” the “Waltz of the Flowers,” those tunes are all so familiar that we recognize them in commercials. You can sing them in your head. They’re not trite, but they’re memorable. If we have a strong, positive memory about a tune, that triggers other good feelings. That’s why we tune into it — and why we take our kids. We want them to have that experience, too.

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The score is the score, but are there opportunities to modify it to some degree, to fit a particular production?

In an orchestral concert, you’re not constrained by the elements of a ballet, so you can take a few more liberties — with the tempo, mainly — with the aim of making the piece hold together as a concert. When you’re conducting it as a ballet, you have to consider the physical production, the steps the dancers are doing, what the court of ballet is doing, all those elements.


Syncing the music and the steps live must be tricky. How do you prepare?

It’s a huge collaboration with the choreographer and the ballet mistress and the dancers and everyone involved. … I have my score in hand and sit with the choreographer and stage manager to coordinate the technical stuff, so that I know ahead of time what our task is, and when we get to the theater there’s no time wasted.


What’s the most panic-inducing moment you’ve had?

The first couple years we did this production, because it’s so huge, we had some technical issues with the scenery. You can see the Christmas tree going up too fast or not fast enough, and you adjust so you end up where you’re supposed to. You stretch a few bars here, quicken a few others there; that’s the joy of live performance. That’s what keeps it interesting for me — those unexpected things happen at the most unexpected times. You have to pay attention.


How does live accompaniment benefit the audience?

People get used to what music sounds like in their earbuds and headphones, and the reality is that music doesn’t really sound like that. A lot of what you experience with a live orchestra is what you’re actually feeling, the vibrations in your body. You may not be aware of it, but that does happen, even with classical music. It’s a whole different experience.


How do you keep it fresh?

This is what’s interesting with pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and The Nutcracker, which musicians play tens of thousands of times over their careers: Those pieces are played so often because they are rich musically. So each time they play they discover something new. That’s what keeps it from being stale or rote. This piece, I don’t believe, has ever sounded boring.

The Nutcracker December 8-24 (full orchestra: December 8,9,15,16), various times, $29-$179, The Smith Center,

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