Christmas, Limelight

Born into a family of musicians, violinist, composer and educator Esmeralda Tintner can’t remember a time when music wasn’t part of her life. Her grandmother was cellist Kathleen Tuohy and her father was conductor Georg Tintner. This month, she returns to the Sydney Opera House with a performance for children called Play Me a Story… The Nutcracker, which tells the story of a young girl called Marie and her favourite toy, a wooden nutcracker carved to look like a soldier. No-one else wants such a funny looking toy, which only makes Marie love the nutcracker even more.

Written and performed by Tintner and Lisa Stewart, leader of the Acacia Quartet, Play Me a Story… The Nutcracker features a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s score for two violins, along with percussion, the Chinese pipa, dance and projected illustrations. Tintner tells Limelight about the piece, which has already enjoyed considerable success.

The NutcrackerPlay me a Story… The Nutcracker. Image courtesy of Esmeralda Tintner

The story you tell sounds rather different to the one we know that we know from the famous ballet. Is that right?

Yes, because the ballet is based on a later version of the story written by Alexandre Dumas Père. I wanted to go back to the original story first published in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann. That is why the little girl heroine in my story is called Marie – as she was in the original. Clara was actually the name of her favourite doll. I have tried to make my Nutcracker authentic and true to the original. But the Hoffmann story does have some very menacing elements –which, by the way, is typical of his style – and it would be too frightening for younger children. So, mine is a very gentle version.

Can you tell us about the music for this production?

The music that people will hear is some of the most beautiful music from the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker ballet score, arranged for two violins.

Did you arrange the music yourself? How close are the arrangements to the original Tchaikovsky score?

Yes, they are my arrangements. Some of them follow the original exactly. Others have cadenzas, or a little introductory prelude for example. Sometimes it was necessary to change the key from the original in order to be able to exploit all the harmonics on the violin. My Chocolate Dance (also called the Spanish Dance) is performed by a flamenco dancer. It starts with a duet between myself and the dancer’s feet. I play pizzicato, imitating a flamenco guitar, and that builds up and then off we go into the famous trumpet solo – only it is played on the violin! It is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker but recreated for the violin. So, it always has the ‘flavour’ of the violin.

What inspired you to write this music?

You know, I dearly love this music, it is the most adorable, the most treasured music. As a young violinist, I was a student at the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatoire in St. Petersburg. My teacher in Russia, Antonina Maksimovna Kazarina, had been Concertmaster of the famous Kirov Theatre Orchestra for 40 years. I had a special pass which allowed me to go to any performance at the Maryiinsky (formally the Kirov) theatre for free. We had to sit so close to the ceiling my hair almost brushed the painted angels.  I heard a lot of Russian theatre repertoire in that theatre, many glorious operas which are not often performed outside Russia, and The Nutcracker, of course.

As a duo with my dear friend Lisa Stewart, I can perform the music that I love the most, in the most personal way. There is so much freedom with a duo – two people who feel things the same way. It is so fulfilling to have a chamber music partner with whom you have such a special musical connection.

In terms of the arrangements, there is actually a long tradition of transcribing opera and ballet music either for the piano, or sometimes for other instruments. They are called Hausmusik transcriptions. The most beautiful numbers from the opera and the ballet were the hit songs of their day. It is difficult to imagine today but there was no recorded sound so there was no way to enjoy this music at home other than by playing it yourself! Hausmusik transcriptions were very popular. There are very beautiful Hausmusik transcriptions done by very famous composers. For example, Richard Wagner transcribed the whole of Donizetti’s four-act opera La Favorite for two violins. It sounds like dramatic, melodramatic even, opera music. It does not sound like Wagner in that sense but it is so beautifully written for the violins. Wagner was a master of counterpoint. All his music is beautifully constructed.

Hausmusik fell into two categories. Some transcriptions were written for amateur musicians to perform at home in a family setting. They needed to be not too difficult. But there were other transcriptions made by artists like Franz Liszt intended to be performed by virtuosi in a salon for a very sophisticated audience.

Which category does your transcription fall into?

In terms of difficulty – the second category! I think when you reduce a full orchestral score to be played on just two violins, it will be virtuosic. Because you need to cover everything, all the harmonies, on just two melody instruments. But I have also written a part for a child violinist. My daughter plays that!

How old is your daughter?

She is 13 now. She is an excellent violinist. The part has grown with her! She was very little when I started writing this this work. In the early workshop performances she used to play the triangle. (She was very good at that, by the way!)

Illustration from Play Me a Story…. The Nutcracker by Lisa Stewart

Can you tell us about the performers collaborating with you on the production?

Lisa is key to my creative work. She supports me and encourages me. It is a creative partnership. She also created the illustrations which are projected during the performance, because Lisa is a children’s illustrator as well as a violinist. Ana Interiano performs the flamenco dance Chocolate. Ana also leads a miniature dance workshop which we do with the children as the last part of the show. She has a lot of experience working with children, and she does this so beautifully. So, the children also get the opportunity to express themselves, which I think is very important. We have a ballet dancer, Perry Scott, who dances Coffee (the Arabian Dance) and Lulu Liu performs on the pipa as Tea (the Chinese Dance). We are in the Land of the Sweets so it’s all about food.

Can you tell us a bit about the pipa and how you came to compose for it?

The pipa, or Chinese lute, is a plucked instrument dating back more than 2000 years. It is a most expressive, evocative, noble instrument. I have truly fallen in love with the pipa. In order to compose for this instrument, I needed to understand it. I spent many hours watching DVDs of elderly Master Liu (a very famous pipa player and composer) demonstrating various pipa techniques and talking – in Chinese (which I do not understand). I also borrowed a pipa from Lulu and had my own funny way of ‘playing’ it, just to try things out, harmonics and so on. Plink plink… The Nutcracker Chinese Dance is a view of Chinese culture very much through western eyes. I thought it would be nice to turn that on its head. So, we have the Tea Dance performed by a Chinese artist on the most quintessentially Chinese instrument. It is really beautiful.

The NutcrackerLulu Liu plays the pipa at Tell Me a Story… The Nutcracker. Image courtesy of Esmeralda Tintner


The show is for children but it sounds as if there is lots in it musically for adults to enjoy…

It is for children but the music is very high quality. It is just beautiful chamber music really. Anyone can enjoy it. The adults love the show as well.

How important do you think it is to introduce young children to music?

Well people talk about the developmental benefits of listening to or studying music. I think that is missing the point. Listening to beautiful music together with someone you love is an experience of connection. It is a shared emotional journey. Children crave these experiences of connection and they need them. The music may be beautiful but listening together, cuddled up with a parent makes it so much more meaningful. This is how we fall in love with music, I believe. It’s like the food our mother made for us when we were children. We always love that food, always.

Is that how you fell in love with music?

Yes. I was very lucky. Both my parents were musicians. I had a unique childhood rich in musical experiences. And I am so happy to be able to share that.

Play Me a Story… The Nutcracker plays at the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, December 23 & 24