11 Classical Music Favorites

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on a few different times when someone has asked me, “What kind of music do you like?” and I was almost completely at a loss as to how to begin to answer the question. It doesn’t, in theory, seem like it should be a difficult one.

I enjoy music in many different genres, and it really depends a lot on my mood and activity what I like to hear at any given time. It never seems easy to summarize the scope of my musical likes and dislikes. I end up thinking, “How many hours do you have available while I expand on that answer?”

I’ve heard people say, “I like everything,” but I doubt that is literally true that they like everything indiscriminately, unless they have no taste or discernment at all. Those who say this probably mean that they listen to music in more than one category, and it seems simpler to say, “I like everything,” than to give a long answer and proceed to list all the specific songs or musicians on their like and dislike lists.

I originally thought I would attempt the long answer and list a few favorites per genre in one post. When I couldn’t narrow the Celtic genre favorites to less than five, I knew I was in trouble and would have to create a series. So, here is the first in the series … 11 Classical Music Favorites … which was almost 15 Classical Music Favorites.


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I especially like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and other composers from the Romantic period onwards on the timeline. Two things helped me gain more of an appreciation of Bach in somewhat recent times: discovering the Swingle Singers’ jazz scat renditions of Bach and watching a biographical film on Bach. I still probably like the Romantics a bit more. My absolute favorite composer is George Gershwin, and my favorite composition of his is Rhapsody in Blue.

  1. “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

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Gershwin, I think, is in a bit of a class by himself. When you hear his orchestra pieces, it’s hard to say whether it’s jazz-sounding classical or classical-sounding jazz. George Gershwin was inspired to write “Rhapsody in Blue” while traveling by train and hearing the rhythm of the train. I know the piece has come to be associated with United Airlines commercials, but, when you hear it, try to imagine a train and not a plane.

The embedded video in the playlist at the bottom of this article is a 1976 performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Leonard Bernstein. I’m amazed that Bernstein can both play the leading piano part and conduct the orchestra during the same piece.

I like the part at 1:26 where it builds up to a point that is truly bombastic and 3:29 where a lot of jumpy hand-crossing piano craziness begins. At 11:02, there is a pretty, smooth string part that is a change in musical mood, leading to a sweet violin solo. After that, things begin to build and gain a little more tension, some swelling and lessening which leads to some more almost jarringly jumpy piano.

I love this swelling brass sound at 14:46. It’s all these changes in mood and dynamic that makes the piece so exciting and emotional for me.

2. “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin


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The performance in the embedded playlist is by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.

One interesting thing about watching an orchestra performance is observing the percussion section. There are so many different percussion instruments, and while listening to a recording, I know I can’t always visualize the instrument responsible for the effect. At 1:32, some percussionist is honking what looks to be a series of old-fashioned bicycle horns. Yes, it is noisy, but I believe it is meant to suggest the traffic on Paris streets. In fact, Gershwin called these odd instruments “taxi horns.” You can see Gershwin with the original here.

It is this kind of genius that I admire in composers of movie scores where the composition fits the atmosphere or mood of a particular scene or activity or paints a picture with music. The piece, a symphonic tone poem, has segments that suggest frenzied city life like this one and other segments that are more smooth, sweet and romantic as in this smooth trumpet part set up by an interesting rhythmic segment.

If you enjoy the orchestra performance, you might also like to see it expressed in dance. The 1928 piece was featured in a 17 minute long ballet scene in the 1951 movie, “An American in Paris.” It features Leslie Caron, a ballerina, and Gene Kelly, a tap dancer, and incorporates both of their dance styles. No, you won’t see Kelly or any of the male dancers in ballet tights. It is really an artistic masterpiece with scenes that mimic the art of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. You can watch the dance scene in this YouTube playlist or order the “An American in Paris” movie from the Amazon image link below.

3. “Hoedown” from Rodeo by Aaron Copland


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So, this is another piece that has come to be associated with a TV commercial, this time for beef … “It’s what’s for dinner.” The performance in the embedded playlist is by the Philadelphia Virtuosi. It really is a fun mood-setting piece. There are sounds that seem to suggest the movement of horses as well as an old American folk sort of fiddling style. In fact, Copland sampled traditional folk music in “Hoedown” and in “Appalachian Spring.”

4. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony


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This is probably the most recognizable classical piece. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music fan, you most likely can recognize Beethoven’s Fifth. Everyone knows the DUM DUM DUM DUM part, so I thought I would highlight some of the other segments.

The playlist performance is from the 2012 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, is interesting to watch with his dramatic arm movements and faces … and so is the drummer, for different reasons. There is an interesting shift in mood at the beginning of the second movement. If you heard the first few seconds of the second movement alone, would you recognize it?

5. “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven


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“Moonlight Sonata” is perhaps the quietest of the pieces in this list, but it still has a lot of quiet drama, a little moody and melancholy. It evokes more of a peaceful than melancholy mood in me. It was this piece of music that helped me discover that music could have a soothing, pain-reducing effect on my migraine attacks.

The playlist performance is by YouTuber and piano player, Rousseau, who uses a reactive visualizer for an effect similar to the visuals in rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution. It may help a piano player learn the finger positions, but, even if you are not, it is interesting to watch.

6. “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven


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It’s a dramatic and joyful-sounding piece, a prelude to the final movement in Beethoven’s 9th and last symphony.

The video performance of “Ode to Joy” was done flash mob style in Sabadell, Spain and is sung in Catalan. It really is a joyous performance, beginning with a single bassist who is joined by more and more strings, a bassoonist, timpani, a brass section and a choir. It’s great to watch the reactions of the people in the courtyard, particularly some of the children.

7. Overture to “The Barber of Seville” by Giacomo Rossini


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I confess that I was first introduced to music from The Barber of Seville by Bugs Bunny cartoons. As a high schooler, I was reminded of the overture on a classical radio station and have loved it ever since. What’s even more wonderful is that, in my hometown, my father and brothers visited a real life Italian barber who sang opera to them as he gave them their cuts and shaves. That must have been quite an experience.

The video performance is of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with Yuri Temirkanov conducting. At 3:23, there’s this wonderful floating sound chased by a tripping little rhythm. It seems perfect for a cartoon, a movie score or some other visual presentation. At 3:50, there is this lovely, gentle swaying and swelling melody that builds into a rapid, dance-like sound suitable for cartoon rabbit shenanigans.

8. “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky


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Tchaikovsky wrote his “1812 Overture” to commemorate the 1812 Russian victory over Napoleon. The piece was originally written to include such unusual instruments as church bells and cannons, 17 of them.

The video outdoor performance by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra does not have cannons but does use rifles at 12:38 and what looks to be a carillion, visible at 13:35. The part at 11:38, during one of the gentler segments, sounds a bit like Russian folk music to me. At 14:53, you can hear a little piece of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” which makes sense when you consider the event commemorated by the piece.

9. “Romeo and Juliet Overture” by Tchaikovsky


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The performance in the video is by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valeri Gergiev at the 2007 Proms. At 7:56 begins the repeated theme you often hear in movie or TV show scenes where characters fall in love, sometimes in cases where it’s meant to be overly dramatic and comedic. I enjoy the beautiful harp at 4:04 and the building tension at 4:36. With a story like Romeo and Juliet, involving feuding families and a double suicide, there ought to be some tension.

10. “Hungarian Dance No. 5” by Johannes Brahms

Source: Wikimedia Commons


I first became familiar with “Hungarian Dance No. 5” in high school when a couple of my classmates played the piece as a piano duet for a competition. It’s been a favorite ever since. I remember getting tense at this dramatic point where things get a little louder and the tempo get faster, just as some would at a sports event, because I wanted my classmates to compete well. Like so many classical pieces I love, it seems to alternate between loud and soft, fast and slow, in ways that are dramatic.

11. “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt


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This piece of music has so many associations for me from Bugs Bunny (again) to the comedy piano performance by Victor Borge. In the video in my playlist, Valentina Lisitsa plays it seriously, without any dancing rabbits, silly showmanship or stunts, and she doesn’t need it.

She has a wonderful touch, caressing those keys and knowing just when to tickle them or give them a little more force. I love how she manages this bit that begins at 1:49 and again at 4:09. It’s wonderful to watch her and see how dexterous her fingers are. In comedy, a concert pianist always begins by dramatically stretching and flexing their fingers. This makes you believe that might actually be necessary.

Classical Favorite Playlist

Mary Poppins Returns Will Please Fans of the First Movie

As a cautious fan of the first Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns has completely exceeded my expectations.

I had the privilege of seeing Mary Poppins Returns in the theater twice this Christmas season, once with two good friends and once with my parents, brothers and sisters-in-law.

I should explain that the first Mary Poppins movie is highly nostalgic for my family. My older brothers saw it in the theater when it was first released. All this happened years before I was born, but my parents bought the movie soundtrack in the theater and that soundtrack became part of my childhood. I played the soundtrack over and over again until I had it practically memorized, although I had to wait years to finally see it as an ABC Disney movie special. The youngest of my older brothers was still practically a baby when Mary Poppins was released, so he remembers nothing of that experience, although he remembers practicing the “Chim Chim Cheree” dance with broomsticks along with my other two brothers.

So, with all of this nostalgic association with the original movie, I was cautious about seeing the new one. I thought perhaps it would seem too different and modern or that the main actors wouldn’t seem to suit the roles made famous by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. (There is no Bert in Mary Poppins Returns, but there is a Bert-like character.) Of course, at the same time, I wanted it to be a little bit new and different. Otherwise, it really wouldn’t be a sequel.

The movie does an excellent job of capturing the nostalgic feel while still being a new and different story. I was not at all disappointed in the performances of Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins or Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack.

Emily Blunt was fantastic in capturing the character and quirks of Mary Poppins, the “practically perfect” nanny who has a bit of an ego and yet is still likeable. (The only other characters in fiction I can think of who can manage that are Hercule Poirot and Inspector Clouseau.) On the surface, she’s a persnickety and no-nonsense nanny — “Spit spot!” — and when she lets out her fun and magical side, always denies it afterwards. Blunt has all the eye rolls and perfectly turned out toes down just right.

The character of Jack is a lamplighter (or leerie) who supposedly worked with Bert as a chimney sweep when he was a boy. Manuel-Miranda is charming in the role and shows off his talents for singing, dancing and even a little rap. The sequel movie shows that the secret lives of leeries are just as magical as those of chimney sweeps.

The effects in Mary Poppins Returns, of course, are wonderful. Dick Van Dyke’s penguin dance with cartoon penguins was revolutionary at the time. Movie techniques and effects have improved a lot since 1964, so the sequel has more movie magic where real-life characters interact with cartoons in an animated world, jump into a magical underwater adventure and multiple characters float up into the sky.

There are many parallels between this movie and the original Mary Poppins, while still creating all new magical adventures, striking a good balance between nostalgia and new innovation. Of course, when Mary Poppins returns, Jane and Michael Banks are grown, with Michael a widower, now the father of three children: Anabel, John and Georgie. England is in the “Great Slump” in the 1930s, and Michael is in danger of losing the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He is a teller at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his father George had a more important position, and keeping the house due for foreclosure, seems dependent on finding a certificate proving he has shares in the bank. Without telling too much, Jane and Michael’s kite from the first movie has an important role in the second in a multitude of ways.

You will find Winifred Banks’ Suffragette banner still attached to the kite. Jane Banks has also become an activist … for laborers, in this new period of the “Great Slump,” something that gives her a opportunity to befriend the charming Jack. I always thought there was a bit of a flirtation between Bert and Mary Poppins, but it makes more sense for Jack to have a flirtation with Jane, rather than with Mary Poppins. For one thing, she’s a magical person and, presumably, old enough to be his mother (at least,) though without seeming to have aged at all.

Here are some of the various parallels I observed. There is no cleaning up song like “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Instead, the next generation of Banks children have an underwater (and boating) adventure while cleaning up themselves in the tub, with the song, “Can You Imagine That?” They do not jump into a chalk pavement picture but jump into a Royal Doulton bowl instead, where there are adventures and two musical numbers.

Instead of visiting Mary Poppins’ uncle and having tea parties on the ceiling, they visit the store of Mary Poppins’ cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep, where things “Turn Turtle” on second Wednesdays. For my mother and one of my sisters-in-law, this was their least favorite scene and song. I don’t agree. Topsy is a colorful character, and the song has a gypsy/klezmer feel to it. There is a lullaby scene too as in the first movie, where Emily Blunt sings, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”

Of course, instead of a “Chim Chim Cheree” dance, the lamplighters dance a lively acrobatic dance to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Instead of hopping over broomsticks, they hang on light poles and do stunts with ladders and poles for lighting. For one of the brothers who practiced the broomstick dance as a boy, seeing this scene was “pure joy.” There are even some extreme sport sort of bicycle stunts for this number. Where that may seem anachronistic, (the extreme stunts, not the bicycles,) it all fits with the acrobatics of the scene. A section of the song has a little fun with Cockney rhyming-slang.

Dick Van Dyke returns as the banker Mr. Dawes and does a little dance in one scene, singing appropriate lyrics about his dancing days not being over. How delightful! (By the way, Dick Van Dyke has a book about aging called, “Keep Moving.”)

The ending number, “Nowhere to Go But Up,” sung by Balloon Lady, played by Angela Lansbury, is also reminiscent of the playful, joyful, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

I noticed in the credits that one of the Sherman brothers who wrote music for the first movie was a musical consultant for Mary Poppins Returns. The sequel’s soundtrack is excellent too and highly recommended.

If you like Uno and Dutch Blitz, you’ll love Blink.

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I tried a new game with my family this Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law brought over a card game called Blink.

(I’m an Amazon affiliate, so I may get a little commission if you purchase through links like the one above.)

The game seemed an easy one to pick up, without a lot of complicated rules. It has some characteristics of Dutch Blitz and some of Uno, both games familiar to me. It worked really well with just three players, me and two of my sisters-in-law.

It is similar to Dutch Blitz in that it’s a fast-paced game where all players play at once. It’s a little like Uno in that you can match color or number (actually count rather than a numeral) or shape.

Blinkgamefaceupcards
Source: Amazon

Cards are first dealt evenly to all players until the deck is all distributed. For three players, the players form a triangle with their draw piles, laying one card out from each, face down. Players put three cards into their hand to start and can replenish them as they play.

Once the round starts, the three face-down cards are flipped over. Players can then match cards and discard them on any of the three now face-up cards.

There are three ways to match, so it seems simple. You can put gray on gray or triangles on triangles or five lightning bolts on five tear drops. Even Kindergarteners know how to match colors, shapes and a count of objects. (This is a game for all ages.)

It’s a bit trickier than it seems. Your brain has to keep track of all three ways to match at a fast pace, constantly switching gears. You may forget that you can put a single green teardrop on five green thunder bolts, because they only match in color and no other way, or you can forget that you can play two yellow triangles on two red stars, because they only match in count.

Like with Dutch Blitz, your opponent can outdo you in speed and slap down a card where you wanted to discard yours. Your four green triangle card may have matched the four yellow star card in a discard pile, but the three gray stars your opponent puts down before you is no longer a card you can match with the one you had in mind.

Threewaystomatch
Three ways to match

I found my mind was constantly switching gears but that I got better and faster with each round that I played.

I’d recommend it for a fast and fun game with simple rules that is still challenging. You can play with friends, members of the family and others of all ages.

 

Three Song Performances Themed Around “Alice in Wonderland”

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Illustration by John Tenniel via Wikimedia Commons

Close friends and family know I am a fan of Alice in Wonderland. It all started as a child when one of my older brothers gave me a picture book based on the original Disney animation. I had it read to me so many times that I memorized the book. As a teenager, I read the original Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass that inspired that movie and picture book and, more recently, read the novel in French.

In my YouTube explorations, I discovered three songs themed around Alice.

The first is just a fantastic cover of a fairly well-known Alice song,  Danny Elfman’s Alice in Wonderland theme from Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland live action film. The performer is Angela July, an Indonesian harpist and singer who competed in Asia’s Got Talent in 2017. The song is ethereal with a hint of mystery.  Ms. July does a multi-track performance where she harmonizes with herself, singing in three parts, and accompanies her voice with harp. Of course, her ingenue pink dress and floral hair wreath does seem to put her into character.

The second is based on one of my favorite poems, which happens to be a poem from Alice Through the Looking Glass … “Jabberwocky.” “Jabberwocky” may seem to be a strange choice for a favorite poem, because it’s seemingly nonsense, but it’s clever nonsense. It tells the story of a slaying of a creature invented by Carroll but has the feel of a knightly dragon-slaying. It’s more difficult to understand when you read it out of context, but in the context of Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains the poem, the first four lines that is, (which are also the last four lines.) Humpty Dumpty is an egghead, so he ought to understand things, right?

Many of the nonsense words are explained as portmanteaus, two words combined in one. “Mimsy” is explained as flimsy and miserable. “Slithy” is a combination of lithe and slimy. Other explanations are a little more fanciful, things that would not be picked up by the reader just by the sound of the word. “Well, ‘toves‘ are something like badgers … they’re something like lizards … and they’re something like corkscrews,” says Humpty Dumpty. For most of the silly words, you get a feeling of the meaning from its context. It has been suggested that “chortled” is a combination of chuckled and snorted.

This song is an original by Erutan, a classically trained singer-songwriter who specializes in a Celtic/medieval sound. She has three albums: Raindancer (2010,) A Bard’s Side Quest (2013,) and The Court of Leaves (2014.)

The third song makes no references to Alice in the actual lyrics, but the visual references in the video should be obvious. It’s “Pocketful of Poetry” by indie singer-songwriter Mindy Gledhill. The song is about being a creative soul, and the video tells the story of her imagination going wild while trapped in a mundane office job. I think any creative type, whether a writer, visual artist or musician, can find it very relatable. Look for the slightly disguised characters — the caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the pack of cards.

Nutcracker and the Four Realms: A Colorful, Eye-Catching Fantasy with Adventure and an Unexpected Twist

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Disney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms is packed full of a lot of things I really love.

Sometimes, I see a trailer for a movie and am excited by it, mostly from the aesthetics. I’m a fan of period movies sometimes called “costume dramas.” Nutcracker and the Four Realms has some elements of a costume drama to it and is just a colorful, visually-stimulating fantasy.

I love stories from the Victorian period as well as the Victorian aesthetic and am a fan of the Nutcracker story, ballet and music. I read the original Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann a few Christmases ago. Sometimes, I think I’m a bit of a Russophile, and there are some Russian style influences in the movie as well. Nutcracker and the Four Realms also features a lot of Victorian-period mechanical inventions and clockwork, another fascination of mine. For this reason, the movie had a bit of a steampunk feel which might appeal to fans of that genre.

I guess my oldest brother recognized it as a “Susan movie,” and he suggested we see it together. I was surprised as it does not seem like a movie with stereotypical macho appeal. After all, it has a young female lead and is partly inspired by a ballet. The new Disney movie might have more appeal to a male audience than the ballet would. It has a bit more adventure and more intense scenes than the ballet and can even be mildly creepy in places. There are some scenes that might disturb someone with a fear of mice … or a fear of clowns. I don’t consider myself a musophobe — the main Mouse Prince has a cute little face — but there was one scene where I did pinch my brother’s sleeve … and he laughed.

The story of Nutcracker and the Four Realms is related to but quite different from the book and ballet, which may disturb some purists. I enjoyed it. I’d compare it to Oz fans being able to enjoy Wicked based on the book by Gregory Maguire. The Disney movie is not a ballet, but there are some ballet scenes in it as well as some Tchaikovsky music from the ballet in the soundtrack.

In this version, Clara Stahlbaum, played by Mackenzie Foy, is a bit of a science whiz and inventor. The movie opens with an owl swooping down over snowy London and a bird’s eye view of these scenes as you touch on some ice among ice skaters and hover over London streets. I saw this in 3D and really felt like I was in motion as my stomach lurched a few times. The significance of the owl relates to the ballet where the opening scene describes a grandmother clock topped with an owl. The owl is next seen with Clara’s toymaker godfather, played by Morgan Freeman.

Clara is first shown in the attic of her home with her brother Fritz where she has set up an elaborate Victorian version of a Rube Goldberg mouse trap, using various toys. This introduces you to her interest in invention and is also a foreshadowing of her encounter with the Mouse Prince.

Her Christmas gift is not a nutcracker. It is an elaborate gold egg reminiscent of Faberge eggs from that period. The gift is from her recently departed mother. It comes with a note from her mother, “Everything you need is inside,” but no key to open the egg. Clara shows her cleverness in that she knows what sort of lock the egg has although she is unable to pick it open. Later, at the Drosseldorfs’ party, Clara helps her godfather by reversing the rotation on his mechanical toy of spinning swans. Godfather Drosseldorf also gives her the key to her egg.

She and all the guests at the party receive Christmas gifts in a unique way. She finds her name tag on a string strung through the house and follows it through mysterious hallways all the way to the wintry outside where she discovers she’s in the magical place of the Four Realms.

The four realms are the Land of Sweets, Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers and Land of Amusements. The Land of Sweets is from the ballet. It is ruled by Sugar Plum, played by Keira Knightley. The other lands are not mentioned in the ballet, although the ballet has a Waltz of the Flowers and a Waltz of the Snowflakes. The movie’s story also has a Christmas Tree Forest.

Shortly after her arrival in the Realms, Clara loses her precious key to the Mouse Prince who snatches it and runs away. She meets the nutcracker, Phillip, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight soon afterwards and is astonished when he calls her Princess Clara and refers to her late mother as Queen Marie.

In the YouTube comments for the trailer, I noticed quite a discussion about how some people are disappointed that the godfather and the nutcracker were both played by black actors. Some were calling it “cultural appropriation” since the story is a European one. I can see finding it strange if a black actor was in the role of Andrew Jackson in a historical movie. That would seem historically inaccurate. This is a fantasy, and the nutcracker is a toy come to life. I don’t have a problem with it, and both actors were excellent in their roles.

The Land of Amusements is the home of the Mouse Prince, Mouse King and other mice. It is also the home of Mother Ginger played by Helen Mirren. The Land of Amusements has the feel of an abandoned, creepy carnival and is at war with the other three realms. The Nutcracker ballet features a Mother Ginger with a tent-like hoop skirt out of which climb little Pulcinellas, European style clowns. The movie’s Mother Ginger and her clowns are housed inside a huge mechanical Mother Ginger with a circus tent skirt. The clowns, with their strange, distorted faces, seem a little bit menacing.

I won’t give too many more spoilers, but there is battle and a very interesting plot twist that those previously familiar with the Nutcracker story would not anticipate.