First-time conductors take a crack at Philadelphia Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Philadelphia Ballet is extending the baton to aspiring conductors for selected performances of the holiday classic.

Andrew Samlal conducts the orchestra.

Andrew Samlal, 25, apprentice with the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra, conducts a rehearsal of ''The Nutcracker.'' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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For many ballet dancers, both professional and amateur, “The Nutcracker” is their first experience performing in front of large audiences.

Philadelphia Ballet extends that opportunity to orchestra conductors. In a dozen performances during the run of “The Nutcracker” at the Academy of Music, a student apprentice will take the baton for the Overture and the opening of Act II.

It will be the very first time they conduct a large ensemble in front of a large audience: The Academy seats 2,500 people.

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“It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but the musicians are so incredibly supportive,” said Amelia Krinke, 19, who is studying at The Juilliard School. “I feel, getting up on the podium, they’re gonna be there for me as I learn. Even if I make a mistake they’re gonna be there. But of course I’m practicing my hardest.”

Amelia Krinke conducts an orchestra
Amelia Krinke, 19, apprentice with the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra, conducts during a rehearsal for ”The Nutcracker.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Krinke will take the baton during portions of performances on December 9, 10, 13, and 24. A second apprentice, Andrew Samlal, 25, takes his turn on December 26, 27, 28, and 29.

For the last three years, longtime Philadelphia Ballet orchestra conductor Beatrice Jona Affron has run an apprentice program that creates opportunities for young, aspiring conductors to get their feet wet on the podium. Throughout the season-long apprenticeship they shadow Affron as she shows them how to prepare the ensemble for performances.

During “The Nutcracker,” she dunks  them in the deep end just as she, herself, was tossed  when she started at the Philadelphia Ballet 30 years ago.

“I’m glad I’m no longer being thrown in the water, to be honest,” Affron said. “But there’s no quicker way to learn. It’s a little brutal, but it’s also very efficient.”

The apprenticeship program brings statistically underrepresented people into the profession. Fewer than one in four conductors in America are women, and just 6.7% are Black, according to the League of American Orchestras.

The first cohort of apprentices three years ago included Na’Zir McFadden, who is Black and has gone on to become the assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He returns to Philadelphia to co-conduct “The Nutcracker” with Affron for 12 performances.

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Affron said conducting an orchestra for dance, rather than for opera or an orchestra alone, requires its own, unique skill sets.

“The people onstage in dance — ballet in particular — very rarely have had a thorough musical education,” she said. “So it’s up to us to learn their language, and to understand their needs.”

Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron conducts a rehearsal
Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron conducts a rehearsal for ”The Nutcracker.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Opportunities to helm a large, professional ensemble are rare for students trying to learn the craft of conducting. For Krinke, whose studies at Julliard are primarily focused on viola, those chances are even fewer.

“You’ve got to make the opportunities. You’ve got to ask your friends. You’ve got to pay them in pizza,” she said. “So this is really an incredible opportunity. It’s incredibly rare at our stage.”

Opportunities are even more scarce for the other conductor in the program, Samlal, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. He arrived in Philadelphia two years ago to study piano at Temple University. He had never before seen the classic holiday show.

“I experienced ‘The Nutcracker’ for the first time when I studied it with Maestra [Affron],” he said. “It’s been an experience.”

He called opportunities to conduct in his home country “almost non-existent.”

“We have a symphony orchestra and we have a large arrangement of choirs, but the classical world is in its infancy stage,” said Samlal. “I’m hoping to gather all this experience and go back and spark some sort of encouragement for more of that.”

Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron instructs apprentice conductor Amelia Krinke
Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron instructs apprentice conductor Amelia Krinke during a rehearsal for ”The Nutcracker.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With 31 shows, “The Nutcracker” is Philadelphia Ballet’s biggest and longest-running production of its season. It’s also the company’s major revenue generator. Because the Christmas classic requires so many people to stage, Affron said “The Nutcracker” is great for bringing up new talent.

“There’s so much need and there’s so much opportunity,” she said.

Philadelphia Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” runs from December 8 – 30, at the Academy of Music.

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