Not Your Parents’ Nutcracker

nutcrackerI’m talking about the new Nutcracker: Complete Ballet Score, performed by an entire orchestra of guitars, single-handedly arranged and executed by Stephen Bennett.

Ridiculously amazing.

I was privy to the back story, and one of the lucky few to hear bits of it as it developed.

A couple years back, a New York producer was hoping to mount a new version of the Nutcracker ballet.  They had heard – and loved – Stephen’s original 1990/97 Nutcracker Suite for guitar orchestra, and approached him about the rather improbable and daunting possibility of doing the entire score in the same fashion.

Turns out, there is a lot more to the famous Tchaikovsky ballet than just the 8 pieces of the “Suite” we are all familiar with (yes, it’s obvious now, but who’s sat down and listened to the whole ballet score lately?).

So SB did some investigation and quickly realized how cool a project it would be.  And so he began.  However, as things progressed, it soon became clear that the project would not be going forward.

But SB could continue on the music, if only for his own amusement.  And so he did.  (Stephen gives a detailed, personal explanation in the liner notes)

Some two and a half years later…

I received my copy this week, and am even more stunned by the sheer amount of work involved, let alone virtuosic musicianship.  Not to mention that Tchaikovsky’s score is utterly and joyously fantastic (and surprisingly modern sounding, guitars or not).

Those guitars include several electrics (with unlimited “virtual amps”), a couple nylon-strings, steel strings from high strung to standard to baritone, a National, two harp guitars and a couple bass guitars. Though it of course doesn’t have the full tonal palette of a symphony orchestra, it has diverse and utterly unique colors all its own (if you’ve been imagining something like an all-“classical guitar” orchestra, as is sometimes seen on YouTube, etc, be assured that this is a whole different animal).  And there are many magical “How did he do that?!” moments.

Of course, while he was at it, SB completely re-did all the pieces from his original suite, which now appear in the proper continuity within the ballet (it’ll also be interesting to pull out SB’s old CD and compare them).

Did I mention this score (25 cues) is so ambitious it filled two 40+-minute CDs?

While visiting the Bennetts in October, I asked to see the score he worked from.  It was over an inch thick, and any given piece would go for, what – a hundred pages?  With a couple dozen staves of parts.  Of course, these included every musical clef known to man and multitudes of transposing horns and winds (e.g: written as C but sounds as a Bb, and other such nonsense).  Astonishingly, I didn’t see one mark-up in it!  SB, where are your arranging notes?  How did you keep track of status, if not at least checking off parts as you went?  Where are the notes on which guitars, transposition, anything?

All in his head.  True, I never got as far as orchestration in my own studies, but this is ridiculous.  The guy’s musicianship is mind-blowing.  (And I don’t even want to imagine Kim having to mix all this!)

I also asked SB if there was any system for the instruments he chose.  For example, was the brass done with electric guitars; slide guitars = strings; harp on nylon-string, etc?  No, each piece was unique (i.e: fairly random), each choice made by sheer creativity (if not unmitigated gall).

Now that it’s done, one can hardly take it all in.  Because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and each piece is a stunning delight.

OK, enough about it already (I actually try to avoid reviewing CDs on this blog).  As there is scant recognizable harp guitar among the 18 different guitars (and even more sounds), I’m actually not stocking it on HGM, so you should pick up a copy directly from SB here.

Yes, the poor guy’s insane.  But he’s an insane genius.

  1. Randall Sprinkle Says:

    I honestly don’t think I ever listen to The Nutcracker all the way through. I knew it was a great piece of music but just not the kind of thing that I would normally listen to.
    I have listened to Stephen’s new cd twice, once at home and once on the road. I alternate between just enjoying the music for what it is and wondering how in the world this all came together. It’s more than I can comprehend but it is a great sounding piece of work and thoroughly enjoyable.
    You are correct Stephen is a genius. We are blessed to have him leading the Harp Guitar revolution!

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