Playing The Nutcracker

Bob MarlattElizabeth England.jpg

By Elaine Sorrentino
Everyone loves The Nutcracker, with its magical world of dancing snowflakes, sugar plum fairies, unsurpassed costuming, and gorgeous music that circles through your memory for the entire holiday season.  This year, however, there’s another wonderful surprise for those who attend Boston Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker at the Opera House this holiday season.  You’ll see a couple of familiar faces in the orchestra pit!

South Shore Conservatory (SSC) instructor Robert Marlatt is principal horn for Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, has played with the company since November 1996, and has performed more than 800 Nutcrackers over the course of his Boston Ballet time.  He will play 39 performances this season.  Also, SSC instructor Elizabeth England has been playing oboe for The Nutcracker since 2016.  She was awarded tenure in May of 2017, and will play 44 performances this season.

Both musicians shared that the process of auditioning for Boston Ballet was a bit intimidating, starting with auditioning anonymously from behind a screen for members of the orchestra and the music director!  They needed to play a prepared solo piece, customarily repertoire from the orchestral world, such as a Sibelius symphony, Beethoven works, or Stravinsky violin concerto, in addition to works created specifically for the ballet genre, such as Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, or Romeo and Juliet. Then they played some orchestral passages.  Neither Robert not Elizabeth needed to wait long after auditioning, as they were notified the same day of their being accepted into the next round of auditions, the semi-finals.  Again, they performed their solo plus a new set of orchestral passages from behind a curtain.  In the final round, however, they were also given instructions on how to play differently by the conductor, in order to demonstrate the musicianship of a candidate.  Clearly both of these accomplished musicians passed this test too, with flying colors, and the next thing they knew, they were Boston Ballet musicians.

Where so many ballet companies perform without a live orchestra, and others have drastically reduced the orchestration, Robert and Elizabeth realize how fortunate we are here in the Greater Boston area to have Boston Ballet in our backyard.  They feel that live music is an integral part of the whole Nutcracker experience.  “It makes a huge difference! It’s a collaboration and multi-discipline art form; if you take away an enormous component of that collaboration, I think that’s unfortunate,” says Elizabeth.

From the orchestra pit, the musicians cannot see the dancers, but during quiet spots in the music, they can hear the dancers’ toe shoes on the stage.  So, what’s makes playing for The Nutcracker special?  Robert says, “The smiles from the audience. Before every show and at intermission, the orchestra pit is surrounded by kids and parents, and we know that, for many, it is their first experience hearing a live symphony orchestra.”

Elizabeth is in agreement. “The audiences! It is so special to create this beautiful world for the audience. Hearing the children in the audience laughing and enjoying themselves is wonderful. Creating a space for everyone to enjoy themselves and be uplifted by this shared experience is a beautiful thing. People come down to the front of the house to look in the pit before the show, during intermission, and after the show. It’s a delight to speak with them, answer any questions they have, and share a smile.”

In Elizabeth’s teaching studio, her students are having fun playing Nutcracker music, but Robert’s students haven’t started yet.  “Maybe I’ll surprise them next week with the ‘Waltz of the Flowers!’” he quips.

To sign up for lessons with Robert or Elizabeth, or to learn more about South Shore Conservatory’s private lesson program, visit or call 781-749-7565 x10.



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