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15 minutes into Nutcracker, the conductor fell ill. Who stepped in?

Here’s what happened on Saturday at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, according to our anonymous insider.

Fifteen minutes into a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the conductor was too unwell to continue. After a crisis meeting backstage, a member of Kungliga Hovkapellet (the orchestra of the Royal Opera) stepped forward and conducted the whole performance faultlessly and with great aplomb, never (we are told) having conducted his own orchestra before.

The indisposed conductor was Eva Ollikainen.


The hero of the hour was Andrej Nikolaev, a member of the orchestra’s second violin section.

Let’s hear it for the seconds….



By the way, not a word of these heroics has appeared (so far as google can tell) in the Swedish press.

UPDATE: We’ve just heard from Eva that she has recovered from a severe stomach flu and will resume conducting Nutcracker tonight.

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  1. I love these stories. For me they demonstrate the skill and versatility of orchestral musicians – too often referred to as “rank and file”. The reality is that a professional orchestra is an almost miraculous body of intellect, musical instinct and flexibility. Without meaning to detract from the individual heroics of Mr Nikolaev, I would bet that most if not all leading orchestras contain at least one member who could, if required, conduct the programme faultlessly and at no notice. And the reverse is maybe equally true: most, if not all, leading orchestras could cope and play the programme faultlessly even with a conductor who makes mistakes!

  2. Andrei!!!! My friend!! I am so proud of him!!!

  3. Well done Mr Nikolaev and three cheers for 2nd violins everywhere!! Often forgotten, but when it comes to a crisis you can always rely on us.

  4. I hope it is nothing serious . I am talking about the conductor. Even if I am the only one…
    so far

  5. Peter Klatzow says:

    The interesting thing about “rank and file” leaping onto the podium is that they know better than anyone what the orchestra really requires from a conductor

  6. José Bergher says:

    Casey Stengel: “•I couldna done it without my players.”

  7. Stephen H. Owades says:

    Arturo Toscanini got his start in conducting when he filled in at the last minute for an indisposed conductor on a tour performance in Rio di Janeiro—he was a cellist in the pit orchestra. Performance adrenaline can be very useful under pressure!

  8. The question remains: how many conductors could sit in the orchestra (with or without notice) and perform an instrumental part to the standard required to be a member? An issue with today’s conductors generally, perhaps?

    • John, I don’t think that is really a relevant question. As I commented above, most conductors used to play their main instrument at a professional level and many still keep it up. Keeping it up requires a big time commitment though, and that is why most of us cannot afford to do it. Studying scores takes even more time that practicing an individual orchestra part, and most of us have a bunch of programs to work on at any given moment.

      I would like to turn your question upside down. Since it seems that almost anyone can step up on the podium and go through the motions to keep the orchestra together till the end of the performance, does that mean that we expect too little of conductors in a purely technical point of view (see my comments on the Han-Na Chang interview elsewhere on this blog)?

      Then again, most of what conductors do takes place at home/studio studying the score, and at the rehearsals before the performances. What people see is just the tip of the iceberg.

      • Sasha, you make good points, and I agree with you. My comment was meant as a wry commentary on the fact that too many younger conductors actually do not learn their primary instruments to a truly professional level, or indulge sufficiently in the indispensable experience of actually playing in orchestras for a considerable time. Too many jump right to “conductor school”, and their poor results are observable all around us. I’m sure you would agree that a large part of conducting an orchestra is psychological, and the experience drawn from the social aspect of having been an executant in one is irreplaceable for those who wish to direct. The other side of the coin is that talent will out; there are of course a number of great conductors who have little or no experience of playing in orchestras.

        As to your question about whether we expect to little fro conductors technically, I say absolutely yes.

        Thanks to everyone for the great V-L stories.

        • I see your point, John. Thanks for clarifying it, and yes, there often is marked difference in how a conductor speaks to the orchestra between people who actually know how it feels to sit in the orchestra and those who don’t. I certainly wish that all conductors had that experience, it would make orchestra musicians’ lives so much easier.

          • Interesting discussion here, but perhaps let’s not forget that the conductor in question here has a masters degree in piano performance, studied french horn and violin. I know from her former piano teacher that her diploma included Rachmaninoff’s majestic first piano sonata and a Mozart concerto which she conducted herself among other things – not just an average piano diploma, I would say.

            And as my own teacher pointed out, most succesful conductors he knows not only started conducting studies at a very early age, but they also usually had the experience of sitting in an orchestra – learning, as my teacher pointed out, what NOT to do from the various so-so conductors that work with youth orchestras ;)

          • I forgot to add that I’ve witnessed some nice concerts where the conductor has spent some of the time also playing an instrument. Andras Schiff is now performing the complete Bartok concerti in Helsinki with Sakari Oramo, but they also performed a Bach concerto last week (paired with Bartok 2nd piano concerto and the concerto for orchestra) where Sakari took up his fiddle and joined the violin section.

          • Oramo is such a class act. The Finns in general as a relatively small population are blessed with so many great musicians. I wonder what’s their secret.

    • John,

      I heard a great story about Heitor Villa-Lobos recently. He was guest conducting NYPhil and became so frustrated with the harpist in rehearsal that he stomped off the podium over to the harp, sat down and
      proceeded to play the harp part exactly as he wanted it. He was evidently a very good harpist as well as
      a much-in-demand conductor!

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        And once with the Philadelphia Orchestra when they were rehearsing one of his works for the first time with V-L on the podium, there was such general cacophony that the person (Vladimir Sokoloff) playing the rather muddy piano part raised it an octave so that he could hear himself. V-L, in a rage, stopped the orchestra and yelled: “Young man, please stop improvising!”

      • Nice stories! Vila-Lobos was also a very good cellist, clarinetist, guitar player and pianist. He started his career as a musician and later the premier as a conductor (28 years old). I think we may say that he developed a lot of important skill before start to conduct.

        • Sir Adrian Boult said in his book on conducting that he always told would-be conductors that they should be able to play serval instruments well.

          • Boult gave the example of Hans Richter. When told by a certain horn player that a passage could not played a certain way took the horn and demonstrated it himself. He said it put the orchestra on their toes as they didn’t know what else he could play!

    • Jane Berger says:

      I don’t think a conductor has to maintain professional-level instrumental skills to do her job properly – indeed, I doubt that it is possible. We orchestra musicians know how time-intensive and also how physically exhausting it is to keep our chops up.
      Many orchestra musicians have creditable conducting skills – this skill is not so hard to maintain. As Sasha pointed out, the time-consuming part of a conductor’s task is score study.
      The Stockholm violinist who saved the day probably knew “Nutcracker” backwards. There is no reason to assume that he was merely able to keep his colleagues together on an emergency basis. He may well have been able to communicate relevant information about tempo, character, balance, phrasing and dynamics as well. Playing fifty performances (as he most likely had) may not be an efficient way to learn a score, but it is certainly effective!

  9. When I read the headline, I was so expecting this to turn into a viola joke. (“…So where’ve you been?”)

  10. Thank you , Norman for the update.

  11. bratschegirl says:

    There’s a bass player hereabouts who did the same thing some years back, conducting the first act without benefit of a score when the conductor didn’t show up (confusion as to curtain time). Of course, not knowing the specifics of the choreography, doubtless there were many times the stage and pit were supposed to line up that didn’t happen properly, but the show was able to go on in the moment and probably very few in the audience noticed anything amiss.

    I’m not sure this has any of the global meanings other commenters are reaching for. For a US-resident working orchestral musician, Nutcracker is likely the score you will play most often in your career. I’m easily over 500 times through and that doesn’t put me anywhere near the top of the list. That kind of experience can carry one, or a whole pit full of ones, through some pretty bumpy circumstances a time or two. But if this person tried to conduct a whole run, I guarantee both the dancers and players would be yelling for his head within a few days.

    Conducting to accompany dance is a tricky and mysterious business. I’ve played for conductors who didn’t particularly care whether they were giving the dancers what they needed and those who followed the stage slavishly without regard for what the music needed. The rare few can do both; I’ve worked with exactly one I’d put in that category.

  12. Stefan Solyom says:

    I spoke to Eva Ollikainen. She’s feeling better now and is not seriously ill.

  13. I am so proud of heroism of the Russian musician. Western musicians have demanded the signing of the contract first and asked how much it would bring him money.:)))

  14. “By the way, not a word of these heroics has appeared (so far as google can tell) in the Swedish press.”
    Swedish media would rather (Sadly) tell us about whos boobs is getting bigger.

    • Why would you expect it to appear in the Swedish press?
      Unless there were some major superstar names involved, it’s not a news story that resonates with most of the population, so not something that the mainstream press are likely to be interested in.

  15. Hmm, just this friday I was asked to take over a production with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra tomorrow, which she was apparently booked for. Hope she gets well.

  16. Michael Hurshell says:

    Merely a comment. While many conductors have played string or wind instruments in orchestras, and undoubtedly profited by the experience, there are also many like myself who “merely” learned keyboard instruments – piano, harpsichord etc – by which I mean: performed on the instrument both as soloist and accompanist – and who never the less turn out to be ok at conducting. (Like… Bruno Walter.) I congratulate Mr. Nikolaev, to be sure; however, if the discussion veers towards the “See? Anybody can do it, conductors are so overrated” variety, I might add: how many orchestral musicians could step in and conduct Tosca? I also add, in this context, that I feel there are a few too many younger conductors who have “skipped” the whole genre of opera, precisely because of the technical and musical challenges it presents for the conductor. Not because I judge opera more important; but because the skills developed in conducting opera also greatly benefit that musician’s approach to symphonic repertoire.

  17. Norman needs a “Like” button.

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