Andrea Chandler in the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra pit during a 2015 Nutcracker performance. (Courtesy/Andrea Chandler)

Andrea Chandler has played the Nutcracker hundreds of times, but this year, the Salem cellist said the score feels fresh again.

The annual Christmas tradition, which Chandler, 61, performs as a member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s orchestra, is back on stage in Seattle after a hiatus due to Covid last year. The ballet and orchestra perform about 40 shows over the month of December, rotating conductors so the music stays fresh.

“Some of us are sort of laughing – we used to complain about Nutcracker and now it’s fine,” Chandler said. “We’re happy to be back to work, we’re happy to be in the opera house with audiences.”

Chandler has been a member of the Seattle-based orchestra since the early 1990s, keeping her position even after her family moved to Salem in 2009 when her husband took a city public works job.

For over a decade, she’s driven the 220 mile stretch of Interstate 5 several times per month during the ballet’s season, spending 10 to 12 days in Seattle and then returning home to be with her family.

Chandler acknowledged it’s an unusual commute, though she’s not the only orchestra member who travels from out of state. Her youngest child was in high school when she began regular travel between Salem and Seattle, which gave her more flexibility.

She was born and raised on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle and now stays with friends when she returns to her hometown.

For classical musicians, landing an orchestra position can be key to a stable career, providing a predictable income for much of the year and health insurance.

Chandler said she didn’t want to give that up when her family moved or say goodbye to friends she’d performed with for years.

Salem does have several music ensembles, but no full orchestras she could have sought a job with. The Oregon Symphony, based in Portland, has gotten increasingly competitive, she said, as have other orchestras in the years since she landed her audition in Seattle.

“You’ve got to win that job with people from all over the country,” she said of Oregon Symphony. With most string musicians now starting lessons at age 4 or 5, “The entry level for going to conservatory or music school … is like people in my day going to grad school.”

Chandler started playing cello in fourth grade. It was the 1960s, and girls at the time didn’t play horns. (Her daughter is now a professional horn player.)

“Like every little girl, I wanted to play the flute,” she said. “The teacher or the band teacher or whoever said that I had the wrong kind of lips for the flute, which I now know to be a complete fabrication.” More likely, she suspects they were trying to avoid having a dozen flautists in her elementary class.

Her father suggested the cello instead. By high school she was practicing two to three hours per day and decided to study music at the University of Washington.

In Salem, she gives lessons, including for McKay High School students through the Music Lessons Project, a nonprofit seeking to make music education accessible for students who can’t afford the cost. Those lessons continued virtually last year as schools moved online.

“They really worked so hard on their instruments because they didn’t have anything else to do,” she said of her students.

Chandler said the Christmas season is so busy for orchestra members with Nutcracker performances that many opt to simply celebrate with their families after the show closes.

Over the years, she and her family balanced the schedule in several ways. Some years, she’s driven home Christmas Eve, missing the final few performances. Sometimes, her family came up to Seattle.

Some years, “we would just decide that Christmas Eve was going to be on Dec. 29,” she said.

This year, she said her husband will join her in Seattle on Dec. 29 and they’ll drive back to Salem together to celebrate with her mother.

Meantime, she’s looking forward to performing.

“We’re back and there are dancers on the stage and we’re in the pit and the audience is in the hall and as long as that keeps going it’s like, ‘We’re good,’” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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