They say they save the best for last.

With the hours dwindling to Christmas, Portland Ballet presents one of the final holiday-related performances of the season when it stages its much-loved and highly localized version of “The Nutcracker” on Friday at Merrill Auditorium.

Portland Ballet titles its presentation “The Victorian Nutcracker” because the story is set in Portland, with sets, costumes and characters inspired by historical figures and locales. The dance company looks to the Victoria Mansion and Deering Oaks Park for inspiration.

In this story, Olivia follows her Nutcracker Prince to the enchanted Kingdom of the Sweets, and is dazzled by dancers from around the world. “The Victorian Nutcracker” features Portland Ballet’s professional dancers as well as Portland School of Ballet students selected by audition.

This year, Portland Ballet recruited a star conductor to lead its orchestra. Sean Newhouse, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will stand in for Lawrence Golan, who adapted the musical score for this production and has conducted it many times.

Golan was not available this year, so he asked his friend Newhouse to take over.

“This seemed like a new and interesting opportunity,” Newhouse said in a phone interview. “This is my first ‘Nutcracker,’ although this is music I grew up listening to and am familiar with. My sisters participated in ballet as kids, and ‘The Nutcracker’ was part of their tradition.”

Newhouse made his debut with the Boston Symphony in February, conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on short notice. He replaced James Levine, who bowed out for health reasons. Newhouse considers Levine a mentor.

He characterized his BSO debut as “dramatic and unexpected.” Because of Levine’s ongoing health concerns, Newhouse had prepped for the chance, so while it’s true he had short notice, he was not unprepared.

“I knew it was a possibility,” he said. “Mentally, I had an idea it could happen. But it was still exciting and scary at the same time, especially because I had never conducted that piece for performance.

“It was a wonderful experience. The orchestra was supportive, and it allowed me the chance to build a strong connection with the musicians.”

Newhouse has watched a DVD of a previous performance of “The Victorian Nutcracker” by Portland Ballet. His girlfriend, who danced when she was younger, watched the DVD and offered observations and pointers. He will rehearse with the orchestra just once before Friday’s two performances.

Tom Parchman, principal clarinetist with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, has played with the Portland Ballet Orchestra for many years. Playing with the symphony and playing with Portland Ballet are two very different experiences, he said.

With the symphony, a musician responds aurally based on the music as it is happening. With ballet, the tempo of the music is based on the speed of the dancers. The musicians respond visually more than aurally.

“We’re all there in service to the dance,” Parchman said. “We’re very dependent on the conductor, who can see how high they went, to know when to give the next beat. The music depends on how long it takes for the dancers to go up and come back down.”

The dancers are all set to go. They have been working on this piece for some time now, and many have danced it before. Under the leadership of executive and artistic director Eugenia O’Brien and associate artistic director Nell Shipman, “The Victorian Nutcracker” features more than a dozen professionally trained dancers among the cast.

O’Brien said it’s a testament to the high quality of her dancers that Portland Ballet can attract a conductor with Newhouse’s credentials. Golan bowed out of this year’s production because of a commitment in China.

“Lawrence thought he would be a good fit for the energy and playfulness, as well as the lushness, of the music for the production,” O’Brien said.

“Lawrence was torn by the opportunity to go to China, but thrilled he could call Sean and get a response that allowed him to do his China trip knowing that he was assisting us by getting someone of that caliber who truly acknowledges the greatness of the music.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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