Song 353: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker Suite: Trépak” (Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski cond.) (1892/1940)

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Alright, let’s get real. Kids, let’s talk. Yes, if you must know, it’s true: When I was young, I used to pretend to conduct classical music in my bedroom. Using a pencil as a baton, I’d lead an imaginary orchestra through a piece of my choosing. I would have been mortified if anybody found out about this when I was 11, but hey, this is what blogs are for, right? Guys?

The program in my tiny Symphony Hall was usually Beethoven’s “Pastoral” or something from the “Nutcracker” suite. This may make me sound like I was some kind of classical music expert as a child, but I was actually just obsessed with something else entirely, which leads me to another confession: from the ages of 10 through 14 or so, I was a Disney fanatic. I loved the movies, the music, and the American myth of Disney himself, pulling himself up by the artistic bootstraps to change culture, pop and otherwise. I wasn’t the only 11-year-old in my school walking around with a cassette tape of the Little Mermaid soundtrack—my friend Alex did the same—but it was as unique as it sounds. Miraculously, neither of us were mocked, as far as I can remember.

So what does this have to do with pretending to be a conductor? This: Fantasia. When the film was re-released in 1990, I don’t think I saw it in the theater, but I watched it many times on VHS, and I listened to the soundtrack endlessly. Now that I know (slightly) more about classical music, I can see that Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski chose perfect pieces for Fantasia. As a kid, the “Pastoral” symphony and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sounded like catchy pop songs, and they still do. They made classical music sound simply like music, and even though I have (proudly) spent most of my years in the pop-rock wilderness, I feel lucky to have had such an early exposure to Beethoven and Mussorgsky.

I was also lucky that my parents encouraged my sister and me to explore our interests. I can’t remember if we saw the Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” before or after Fantasia found me, but either way, I’m thankful that we made the semi-annual trek to the Wang Center, dressed up in our Christmas best in the Big City. I’ve loved the “Nutcracker Suite” ever since, and in my Li’l Leonard Bernstein days, “Trépak” was my jam. The “Russian Dance” is short, invigorating, and has none of that annoying seriousness that bogged down pieces “Thé” and “Café” (the Chinese and Arab dances, respectively) to a pre-adolescent.

Back in 1991, some kids rebelled by listening to 2 Live Crew or Nirvana, but I was furiously waving my arms to the sound of some guys dancing like this. I cringe when I picture this scene, but I stand proudly by my love for “The Nutcracker” and Fantasia, two artistic triumphs seemingly designed to get kids into classical music. I’m glad they worked on me.


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