In sweet symphony
Conductors Matilda Hofman and Christian Baldini share everything, including the Nutcracker ballet
Davis conductor Matilda Hofman is coming off a hectic week. She just finished six different rendezvous with the Sugar Plum Fairy—four in San Francisco, where she conducted sets for the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, and locally where she led the Sacramento Ballet’s version, Ron Cunningham’s The Nutcracker, for two productions.
And she’s not done with the iconic ballet yet: Hofman will conduct two more performances with the Sacramento Ballet on December 23.
For Hofman, the production is more than just a December mainstay, it’s a family affair of sorts. Hofman’s husband Christian Baldini, also a conductor, recently led the Camellia Symphony Orchestra and Bellissima European Dance Academy through selected Nutcracker highlights.
It’s not the first time this “two baton” couple has found each partner studying the same music.
“I can tell you which pieces we’ve both studied, because those are the pieces we have multiple scores of,” said Hofman. “Elgar: Enigma Variations. Stravinsky: Rite of Spring. The late Tchaikovsky symphonies.”
Still, Baldini stresses, this time, the shared process has been somewhat different.
“I think this is the first time we’ve both been conducting performances of essentially the same music during the same week,” he said
They haven’t been doing precisely the same scores, of course. The San Francisco Ballet, which has a full-sized orchestra, does the original Tchaikovsky orchestration while the Sacramento Ballet conducts a chamber-orchestra version. Meanwhile, the Camellia Symphony Orchestra performed excerpts, not the entire show. Each of the three productions also features different cuts, different choreography and different tempos.
The husband and wife have very different experiences and backgrounds with the holiday ballet. Hofman grew up on The Nutcracker as a girl in England, and says she still remembers feeling awe the first time she witnessed it at age 7.
“It must have been the Royal Ballet in London,” she said. “I do remember the scene with the rats, and being very scared. They were very realistic, or so I thought at the time. And they were so big.”
Baldini, who grew up in Argentina, has only become familiar with it more recently.
“It’s not done as much in South America … it’s not something I grew up with,” he said. “But it’s something I’m [now] seeing our children grow up with.”
The Nutcracker originated in Russia in 1892 and eventually became a hit. The first complete performance outside of Russia happened in London in 1934, and the first complete American performance was in San Francisco in 1944.
After that, the ballet started catching on, with annual productions in San Francisco, then London and then New York, with the famous George Balanchine production starting in 1954. Soon, The Nutcracker became a behemoth.
“Almost ever ballet company in America is doing it this month,” Baldini said.
Not surprisingly, the couple’s young sons—a first-grader and a second-grader—have grown up with The Nutcracker.
“I took them to see the Sacramento Ballet’s production two years ago … they loved it,” Hofman said. “The Russian Dance (Trepak) is their particular favorite.”
And earlier this month, Baldini, fresh off a flight back from Argentina, where he had been conducting an opera, took the children to catch the Sacramento Ballet’s production again.
“I took them so they could see Mommy conduct, they were very excited,” Baldini said. “It’s a family-type piece, and there is magic in the story.