Virtual Sugar Plums 

Oakland Ballet's orchestra-free Nutcracker triggers an orchestral protest.

Most public protests overlook one key element: a five-piece brass orchestra playing Christmas carols. Lightens the mood a bit. Thankfully, the Live Music Task Force, a nascent Bay Area collective, remembered both the horns and the picket signs as they camped semi-angrily outside the Paramount prior to an Oakland Ballet Nutcracker matinee last Monday afternoon.

Great idea. The quintet captivated youngsters while craftily reminding harried parents what they'd be missing once they stepped inside: an orchestra. The Nutcracker didn't have one. The Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy have gone digital. This saves the Ballet a great deal of cash, but costs local orchestra pros -- most likely the Oakland East Bay Symphony -- a sugar-plum gig. In turn, those pros argue, it culturally gives you (and especially your kids) the shaft.

Thus did twenty-odd folks descend on the Paramount, brandishing "Save Live Music" signs. The mini-orchestra spread "Joy to the World." Some gals worked the street, waving the signs at passing cars in hopes of soliciting a few supportive honks. Other ralliers signed up for Pedestrian Detail, pacing back and forth and almost subliminally murmuring "It's not live" to ballet patrons as they walked warily by.

"No live music," one protester declared. "Ridiculous, isn't it? That's not what you think of when you think of ballet."

"It's like lip-synching," her fellow rabble-rouser added. "Milli Vanilli."

Meanwhile, David Schoenbrun, founder of the LMTF and President of SF's American Federation of Musicians Union Local 6, delicately tried to frame it all. First off, he has to convince folks this goes deeper than putting a few oboists out of work -- the Task Force includes some Oakland East Bay Symphony members. "Ohhhhh, I'm sorry," one woman intoned sympathetically to the sign-wavers.

Furthermore, Schoenbrun is trying not to piss off the Ballet. "They claim it's for financial reasons," he reasons. "I can appreciate that. We're not necessarily protesting the Oakland Ballet, but rather calling to the public's attention that this is something we must be careful not to devalue in this culture. ... As we devalue music, we'll see musical education continuing to decline in our schools, and with that, well, I believe, test scores. Our culture taking a dive. And it's not the Oakland Ballet -- I wanna get that point across. It's really the value that people need to place on live music."

The Ballet, understandably, is a bit miffed anyway. Marketing director Karen Faber declined interview requests, but released a statement: "As you may know, Oakland Ballet was dark in 2004 due to financial concerns, and provided its patrons with a very condensed program this season in order to be fiscally conservative," she wrote, adding that live music did figure in a few recent shows. "That being said, it would have been fiscally irresponsible of Oakland Ballet to present live music this year to The Nutcracker, though we made every attempt to find funding for it. It is our hope to be able to offer this to our Nutcracker patrons in 2006." She also expressed disappointment with the protest, separating Schoenbrun and his ilk from the Oakland East Bay Symphony itself: "The OEBS has informed us that this small group does not represent the Symphony, nor do they have the support of OEBS."

Is the Task Force just kicking an understandably struggling arts organization while it's down? A few incoming patrons eyed the protest warily: "I think the audience should complain," one woman opined to a pack of sign-wavers. "I think it hurts your credibility when you're the one complaining."

But in Schoenbrun's defense, judging from their reactions, plenty of Nutcracker ticketholders didn't know the music was canned. "I understand the Oakland Ballet not wanting to say 'Done to Tape,'" he said. "It's not much of a selling point. But we need to reach some accommodation whereby there is some truth in advertising." The Ballet's Web site doesn't seem to mention it.

The show itself got mixed reactions; if anything, the Task Force made sure folks noticed what they were missing. "I was tryin' to think about it, and I realized it was lonely without the orchestra," noted Jean, an Oakland creative writing prof who brought her five-and-a-half- and two-and-a-half-year-old daughters. "It looks very sparse up there. ... I mean, I think if you have a live orchestra it definitely fills the place, fills what you're looking at with humanity a little bit more, you know what I'm saying?" She adds, though, that the ballet tacking twenty bucks or so onto the ticket price to fund an orchestra (Schoenbrun estimated that hiring one for a five-show run would cost roughly $33,000) would have priced her out.

Schoenbrun ultimately stresses the Children Angle, the educational joy of leading your kids down to the orchestra pit and pointing out all the different instruments. Both Jean and Kris, a stay-at-home San Leandro mom who brought her seven-year-old, lament losing that scene. Kris' daughter, in fact, spent a full half-hour prior to the show standing transfixed and delighted by the protest's orchestra quintet, and once she went inside, the void was sadly obvious. "I took her down and showed her, 'This is where the orchestra would be,'" Kris recalled. "And she said, 'Ohhhhhhh.'"

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