Bye bye, Nutcracker

For the last four years, I’ve played with my string quartet at The Paine Art Center’s production of Nutcracker in the Castle. What on earth is “Nutcracker in the Castle,” Ashley? Basically all the rooms in this mansion are decorated with Christmas trees and festive touches (nutcrackers). It’s sensory overload in a very festive (and nutcrackery)way. From mid-November until the January, guests are free to go on self-guided tours during the week or go on guided tours on the weekends.

We play on the weekends for the guided tours. Groups are taken by Godfather Drosselmeyer (who is usually mistaken for a pirate at least once a night) through the “castle” to see the rooms and a performance by a local dance studio. Before the guests go on the tour, they gather in a large gallery room to eat cookies, drink punch, play with toys, and take pictures in front of a gigantic tree. This is where we play.

We play the same music for each of the tours (seven on Saturdays, eight on Sundays). It gets old very quickly. Since the tours start the weekend after Thanksgiving, I’m usually in the Christmas spirit and feeling cheerful. But by the time Christmas comes around, if I hear Waltz of the Flowers, I’m about to go ape shit on somebody.

Playing the same music for eight hours each weekend for two months takes a certain stamina. When you’re playing Miniature Overture the 500th time, you recognize that you’re going insane, but you have to stop yourself from actually doing so.

Over the last four years, we’ve found ways to entertain ourselves. Though the players have changed (we rotate a few different violists, just got a new cellist, and now have two different first violinists to pick from), we still sort of do the same things: gratuitously long improv sessions during Arabian Dance, staring contests, adding ridiculous flourishes (super fast single octave scales), and lip-syncing the Drosselmeyer’s monologue. New forms of entertainment this season included the violist signing the monologue, Fruit Ninja battles on my Kindle,  blowfish face ambushes (two of the musicians make blowfish faces and stare at me till I laugh), and stifling laughter at the expense of children who fall over for no apparent reason (yes, that happened).

Last weekend was the final performance of the season. Now that it’s over, I’d like to say that I’ll miss it, but I won’t. I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with myself. If anything, I’ll miss seeing the group. We bonded, not completely unlike the way soldiers do. Hopefully there will be more gigs and even more after-gig beverages.


Nutcracker at sunset. This was before we got a foot of snow.



Curious what my weekends looked like? THIS.



I think this tree is 25ft tall, so it’s probably really easy to decorate. Also, in the foreground is the coolest dollhouse ever. I would have cut a bitch to have this when I was a kid.



These 5ft tall dudes line the perimeter of the first room, so if you’re creeped out by nutcrackers, I’d advise not arriving early for the tour.

…and then I hung out with some of the world’s best musicians.

I was going to stay home last night. I had a somewhat uneventful day at work and after teaching a violin lesson, I thought it would be nice to go home, put on some sweats, and try to write something. This would have turned into me being on Facebook for about an hour, then watching The Colbert Report.

But I had received a Facebook invite to see the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin perform at UW-Oshkosh. At first, I was like, “Meh. Quartet music. It’s too far to drive and I just bought new tea. I’ll youtube the program.” But something kept tugging at me – a comment that one of my friends posted: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of the best musicians in the world.”

So I felt obligated. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t.


It was a fantastic reminder that I can’t expect my  life to be fun, exciting, or inspiring if I sit in my apartment alone. First off, I was welcomed by the sight of the building in which I spent the most while in college. I never thought I would be so comforted by the hideous architecture. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of my most tumultuous and memorable moments happened in the Arts and Communications building.  That building witnessed the disintegration of my two most serious romantic relationships, the beginning of one of them, several crying spells (over boys, over finances, and over studies), a tipsy rehearsal (for what ensemble? I’ll never tell), and plenty of others I would rather not post on the internet. My point is that it was like walking back to a home – even if it was a stressful and oddly moist atmosphere.

I was able to see many of the people that made my time in the music department fun. It also made me really miss being there. At times, I hated how small the music department was – it was small, a little cliquey, and surprisingly gossipy at times. It sometimes reminded me of high school. But regardless, it was a community. There’s a sense of comradery among music students. We complain about how other majors only take four or five classes a semester while we’re taking seven or eight. We complain about the stinky practice rooms, and how the hall is either steamy or freezing. We complain about practicing piano or ear-training. We all have to trudge through the same classes. I would say it’s exactly what happens to men on the battlefield, just with reeds, spit valves, mallets, and rosin.

The concert was incredible. It inspired me to both play my violin and sell it – because why bother? I’ll never be as good as them. It was a pretty traditional program – two fantastic quartets book-ending a modern piece that everyone pretends to understand and really love. Mozart, Lutoslawski, and Beethoven.

The thing about music like Mozart or Beethoven is that it has a distinct grace and natural air to it. I’m too clumsy of a violinist to play Mozart properly, and I certainly haven’t played enough in the last six months to do Wolfgang or Ludwig any justice. I’m envious of violinists whose pianissimos are as powerful as their fortissimos. The four musicians tonight made it look so damn easy. It was hard to imagine any of them being an amateur. It sounded like they had been rosining their bows in the womb and perfecting arpeggios and three octave harmonic minor scales on the other side of the canal.

The Lutoslawski was completely different. It was sort of like they got up there and said, “Hey! Look at all the sounds we can make with these things!”

It was powerful to watch, but in the same sort of way I felt about The Master. I could appreciate its complexity and the strength of an ensemble that plays the piece, but I didn’t connect with it.

Afterward, I was planning on going home and reading some more Infinite Jest when I caught wind that one of the musicians had asked (in a perfectly charming German accent) where to get beer. A few of my friends jumped at the chance to take them downtown to Oblio’s. I wavered for a moment and then remembered: a once in a lifetime opportunity.

When else would I be able to say that I saw the world’s best string quartet (for free) and then had a few beers with them?

NEVER. That’s when.

So I went.

I spent most of the time talking to the cellist (who I thought was handsome in a mature-foreign-world-class-musician sort of way) and the violist. The cellist said he enjoyed Wisconsin and was glad that our beer had improved. We ended up talking about the Lutoslawski piece for about twenty minutes, with the violist talking and half-singing the thing while we followed the score (which looked INSANE, by the way). As I guessed, the piece wasn’t exactly measured – the bars are more of suggestions. Phrases are repeated and ended by cues and rests are counted in seconds (not beats). Basically, the musicians have to function as a single unit (which, I realize, all ensembles truly have to do) in order to achieve a successful performance.

But when I told them I was glad they ended with the Beethoven, they both laughed their hearty German laughs and asked if I wanted another beer.

It was a great night. And while I love blogging and writing, I’m so glad I didn’t stay home in front of my computer.