The San Francisco Symphony Joins Forces With Hollywood for the Holidays

Allan Cumming (Photo by CAMI Music)

While the very nature of  a fairy tale requires us to suspend our belief, perhaps a more robust, fleshed-out telling of a beloved tale might cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of a tried-and-true favorite.

Take The Nutcracker. Many of us ring in the holidays with this traditional ballet accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s magical score about a young girl named Clara in which her favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom filled with candy and dolls. Fantastical indeed. 

However, as the distinguished conductor John Mauceri discovered, this is an oversimplified version of a story titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King originally penned by E.T.A. Hoffmann more than 200 years ago. The ballet by Alexandre Dumas is based on an adaptation of this book. 

On December 21, John Mauceri will lead the San Francisco Symphony in an altogether reimagined version of the beloved tale with a score and narration that keeps the origin story intact, but reveals a plot including warring sisters, a dreaded curse and two magical brothers. Ultimately, the story culminates with an 8-year-old girl breaking the frightful curse and becoming queen of a land of imagination and tolerance.

“I have arranged a score making use of all of the favorite sections of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, but also adapting lesser known works as a soundtrack to this bigger story,” explains the conductor, who delved deep into Tchaikovsky’s catalog to unearth this timeless tale that encourages children to follow their dreams, to never stop believing in the power of imagination and the belief we can all live together in harmony.

(Photo by Grittani Creative Photo)

Not only will audiences be treated to Mauceri’s illuminating and newly conceived score; in addition, the immensely talented Alan Cumming will be narrating the production. When we caught up with the inimitable Cumming by phone in New York City, he couldn’t say enough about the upcoming show. “It’s really a mashup! We get to hear all of Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits — and I get to work with John,” says the accomplished actor, writer and singer whom Mauceri invited to perform. The two originally met when Cumming was in drama school and performing cabaret and stand-up comedy in his native Glasgow in the 1980s and Mauceri was the music director of the Scottish Opera. Cumming recalls collaborating on a commercial for the Scottish Opera with his show Victor and Barry in 1987: “The campaign was everywhere and very successful — it was kind overwhelming at the time,” says the self-effacing performer, who has teamed up with Mauceri many times since. “John is so clever and skilled — he really researched this production and I think the audience will be enchanted and surprised.” He is looking forward to the evening and to spending time in a city he loves where he has plenty of friends and family.

With his second book titled Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life (HarperCollins, 2021) having just been released on October 26, Cumming also has plans to appear at “a couple of indie bookstores” while he is visiting the Bay Area for the holidays.

Another special symphony guest, Darren Criss of film, music and stage fame, will be returning to his hometown for what is sure to be a celebratory New Year’s Eve performance at Davies Symphony Hall. Conductor Bruce Anthony Kiesling and the San Francisco Symphony will collaborate with Criss for a rousing night of eclectic holiday music and much more.

Darren Criss (Photo by F. Scott Schafer)

“Performing with an orchestra is like having the Avengers at my side,” says an enthusiastic Criss, whose varied career includes everything from a long-running starring role in Glee to an Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Criss clearly has superpowers of his own.

“Darren is the most talented person I have ever met — he isn’t limited by anything,” raves Kiesling, who met Criss in Los Angeles in a bar where Criss was playing piano. They discovered they were both University of Michigan alums. Criss happened to be looking for a music director for A Very Potter Musical and he tapped Kiesling for the role. 

Kiesling is currently the music director for both the Adrian Symphony in Michigan and the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra in California. He was thrilled that Criss accepted his invitation to collaborate for the New Year’s Eve show. “Audiences can most certainly count on an eclectic set list that will showcase songs from Darren’s recently released holiday album, A Very Darren Crissmas, classic holiday favorites (think Andy Williams) and plenty of original tunes by Darren.”

“I will, of course, rehearse for this show, but I also like to get a vibe from the audience and go with it,” says the self-taught guitarist and pianist who assures us there will be surprises. “I have great respect for the orchestra’s time, but there’s always room for some unexpected orchestral arrangements,” he teasingly adds

The Saint Ignatius High School graduate is also a soon-to-be father and is excited to be coming back to his hometown. “It will be a reflective show for sure. The audience will hear music that spans my entire career — a sort of love note to San Francisco.”

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Tuesday, December 21, at 7:30 p.m.; “NYE Celebration with the S.F. Symphony,” featuring Darren Criss and Bruce Anthony Kiesling, conductor, Friday, December 31, at 7:30 p.m.