The Pit and the Pendulum – Science Kid Elise Unruh was Born to Conduct: It was Just a Matter of Time

Elisefinale

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing   

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820December (sometimes called “The Holidays”) is rife with strange rituals made familiar through repetition. A large pine tree in the living room here, an eight-armed candelabra there; it’s as if the year-end religious posturing were a battle between Paul Bunyan and Liberace. It gets stranger. Nodding animatronic reindeer ablaze with incandescent light crowd our lawns and gardens, that strange, lyrically insistent song “dreidel, dreidel dreidel!” is in the air, and obese men in red velveteen burst out in spontaneous laughter for no good reason and haunt the street corners like badly disguised pickpockets.

One of the stranger and more ravishing December traditions is the kaleidoscopic Tchaikovsky blowout that takes place at the dear, venerable old Arlington theater every year, she of the indoor vault of stars, cozy lamplit village and threadbare Gone with the Wind lobby furnishings. They call this show The Nutcracker at the Arlington, and it has been flipping local wigs in that storied location for 41 consecutive Decembers this year; one of the longest runs in the U.S. of a Nutcracker production with live symphony orchestra. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (call him Pete) was a star-crossed artist – unlucky in love, intermittently blocked, jittery by disposition, and a friend to the nervous breakdown. His passions ran to either end of the emotional spectrum. Pete once threw himself into the freezing Moscow River in a fit of broken romantic pique, for instance. The music of The Nutcracker is, not surprisingly, achingly beautiful.

Preventing Pandemonium in the Pit While Conducting Pete

But mounting a show with a live symphony orchestra, particularly a complex and many-splendored extravaganza like The Nutcracker, is a gamble. Musicians are an unpredictable lot. When the curtain rises what’s to stop them from just excitedly launching a cacophony, sawing away at their strings, puffing out their cheeks and blowing into their fancy horns, or arhythmically banging the kettle drum with abandon? The celesta player could just start Sugarplum Fairying all over the map and wreck the whole show.

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Sugarplums Galore – photo Fritz Olenberger

Enter Elise Unruh, for 28 years the baton-waving conductor of The Nutcracker at the Arlington. If you’re one of the lucky theatergoers who have seen this gorgeous Nutcracker production, you know Ms. Unruh well. She’s the nice lady in the pantsuit who appears like a genie next to the orchestra pit just as the pre-curtain Nutcracker anticipation in the dusky Arlington house is nearing fever pitch. For some minutes there will have been flickering movement in the mesmerizing space between the curtain and the stage as the cast frantically take their places behind the pleated 10-ton drape. Suddenly the musicians in the pit cease their atonal instrumental murmuring. A lone figure materializes next to the pit, stage right. She is not a Promethean super-being throwing off light, but an attractive, composed lady in a seasonally festive pantsuit. Dwarfed by the proscenium, made miniscule by the cavernous Arlington house with its twilit puebla village and sky-high vault of electric stars and two thousand seats, she is neverheless riveting. People start shushing each other, like she’s about to sing. But she is not going to sing. This mellow, grinning, unprepossessing lady in toned-down holiday garb is the freaking CONDUCTOR, her powers finally as indecipherable as those of an astronaut, brain surgeon or submarine commander. She has neither the striding bravado of Kirk arriving on the bridge of the Enterprise, nor the wild-haired expressionism of a conducting eccentric in tails. She is a lady in a pantsuit. But her appearance compels an almost audible communal gasp, followed by a hush that ripples over the audience like a breeze over a stilled pond.

“It’s the conductor!”

Ms. Unruh bows demurely and with another slight smile receives the intrigued, appreciative, and sustained applause of an audience to whom her skill set is approximately as mythic as the ability to soar around the room on gossamer wings. Most people can imagine playing a violin or plucking at a harp, however ineptly, but to stand before a disparate group of willful musicians and wrest from them the hair-raisingly lovely music of the spheres – no one understands how this is done. Now before 2000 sets of staring eyes Elise Unruh turns on her heel, descends the little stairway into the orchestra pit, nods to the gathered musicians in greeting, raises her little wand, and with a not-terribly dramatic gesture summons from that long, gently-lit hole in front of the stage, the first heartrate-teasing strains of the evening’s Tchaikovsky. The Arlington house sighs as one. The conductor! Where on Earth do these creatures come from? What do conductors do when they get home? What foods do they eat? Sandwiches? Pizza? Do they sleep with their wands tucked under their pillows, Harry Potter-style? Or how about this; what could they have been like as children? What sort of household produces a conductor, of all things?

Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Passionato

“There was always music in the family growing up. My mother was a church organist and had played clarinet in school and my father had been in the choir. There was a piano and an organ in the house to noodle around on. We listened to different kinds of music on records, and I remember sitting on the floor watching the Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic Concerts for Young People on TV.” Bernstein, maybe best known to the uninitiated as the guy who (with lyricist Stephen Sondheim) gave us the songs of West Side Story, hosted a TV series called Young People’s Concerts during the years he was conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The program featured the affable conductor-composer talking playfully to a theater full of kids about this or that classical music factoid, and then demonstrating the concept with a full orchestra; a hundred or so seated, balding virtuosos in suits, clutching their instruments and patiently awaiting their cues. Thousands of kids sat cross-legged on the floor watching the TV series, and it is credited with having launched a generation of musically literate youngsters. Some of them became composers, possibly. We can only guess. Ms. Unruh continues.

“It was just always expected that my brother and my sister and I would take up an instrument in school. As expected, I started clarinet in 5th grade and switched to bassoon in 7th. In 6th grade,” she explains, and here the cherubim can be heard twittering in the eaves, “the band director let me conduct a piece of music. I got hooked on conducting. Subsequent sympathetic directors let me conduct quite a bit in junior high and high school.” 6th grade! She caught the bug early, was positively reinforced, and clearly had a predilection besides. She was off and running!

Not so fast.

Young Would-Be Conductor Torn By Warring Hemispheres of the Brain

“I was also very good in math and science in high school, so I was persuaded by various people – my teachers, counselors, my parents – NOT to major in music in college. One can always do music on the side, they said. “ Yes, quite right. On the side. Does this strike a….chord, with any nervous parents out there? Just curious. Ms. Unruh goes on. “I enrolled at UCSB as a Chemistry major, but I immediately joined the orchestra and the band, where eventually I became the conductor of the student-run football and basketball pep bands. I took bassoon lessons and played in a woodwind quintet, too.” There was chemistry, all right, but not chiefly the kind that splashes around in a beaker. Is this the story of a STEM kid who found she was continually being drawn back to the band room? In a word, yes. Was there a “Eureka moment” when she realized she had to follow her heart?

Maestra Elise Unruh was headed for a career in science, but couldn’t stay away from UCSB’s band room

“It started during sophomore year when I took Organic Chemistry, which I did not enjoy at all. A little voice in the back of my mind started saying ‘hey – you’re spending way more time in the music department than in the chem lab, and you are certainly enjoying it more over there.’ I realized that all the well-meaning advisors had actually pointed me down the wrong path, and I changed majors during junior year. “ Wrong path! Changed majors! Junior year?! Egads! Every parent’s nightmare! “I finished up my BA in Music, not Chemistry, then went on to get a Teaching Credential in Music and finally an MA in Music with an emphasis in Instrumental Conducting.”

From Reactants to Rostrum

While conflicted scientist Elise Unruh struggled on campus to free her inner Maestra, a close collaborative relationship was forming between the Santa Barbara Symphony and UCSB’s Music Department, such that many of the symphony’s section leaders were UCSB music department faculty, and the SB Symphony and UCSB Symphony shared a conductor. “Several students from the University Symphony were invited to play in the Santa Barbara Symphony,” Unruh explains, “and I was one of them. This was even before I’d changed majors. After a year as a student member of the Santa Barbara Symphony, I became the regular second bassoon there, and moved up to Principal Bassoon a few years later. I played in the Santa Barbara Symphony for 25 years in all.” Then in 1978 Ms. Unruh was named conductor of the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony. Maestro Kojian became Conductor of the SB Symphony and grew familiar with Unruh’s work as the Youth Symphony conductor, as well as her conducting work with the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera (SBCLO), whose performances he often attended as an audience member. A professional relationship formed, and an informal mentoring began.

“Since I was also a musician in the Symphony, he started turning to me as a sort of unofficial assistant conductor, asking me to cover a symphony rehearsal now and then when he was out of town on other engagements. In 1987, he had to miss both The Nutcracker and a Winter Arts Festival Concert, and he invited me to serve as his substitute.” In the late 1980s the conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, Varujan Kojian, a Lebanese-American trained in Vienna, was sidelined with cancer. He had only arrived a few years before. Committed to carrying on as long as possible, he enlisted the help and support of his protégé Ms. Unruh in the acquittal of certain of his conducting duties.

“Later, when Mr. Kojian became ill, I stood by during his final Nutcracker performances, and then was asked to conduct the performances the following year after his passing. This was probably because I had conducted it before, and also because I had a strong recommendation from Jeanne Ullom (orchestra contractor for The Nutcracker) based on our work together at SBCLO.”

Former aspiring chemist Elise Unruh has been conducting The Nutcracker at the Arlington ever since, to the wonderment of every year’s audience. Can Maestra Unruh shed any light on the rigors of conducting a Tchaikovsky score? Her years at the Arlington’s rostrum surely give her a privileged position from which to judge the proceedings? Unruh waxes technical, slipping into the nearly indecipherable conductor-speak of a highly trained music academic.

“Everybody in the pit likes watching the Gingersnaps take their bows – we’re not playing then. So cute!”

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Santa Barbara Festival Ballet presents Nutcracker at The Arlington, with Live, Full Symphony Orchestra – Elise Unruh, Conductor.

Three Performances – Saturday, Dec 10th at 2:30pm and 7pm, Sunday, Dec 11th at 2:30pm

Arlington Theatre Box Office, 1317 State Street, Santa Barbara
805-963-4408 or www.ticketmaster.com

Group Tickets Contact Lori @ 805-331-2287