Peter and the Wolf, a rite that enthralls
By Peter Dobrin, Music Critic
Oct. 25, 2007
Maybe the girl behind you kept kicking your seat, and the ride left you feeling a little queasy. You skip from the yellow school bus through the cool, wet air into the big-city orchestra hall. It's a place like no other you've been - impressively cavernous and filled with other children, where, by way of Peter and the Wolf, the sound of a symphony orchestra gets into your ear for the first time.
That turn of events or ones like it have been playing out for the seven decades since Prokofiev wrote his half-hour tale for orchestra and narrator. To those of us who traffic in classical music, it's a rite so powerful as to be sacred. Peter and the Wolf probably has announced the possibilities of orchestral music to more listeners than any other piece in the repertoire. It's a circle-of-life kind of thing.
Yesterday morning the Philadelphia Orchestra once again put Peter before a green public, a crowd of kindergartners to eighth graders from area schools who made the trip to the Kimmel Center. A film version was shown at the Mann this summer, but the orchestra has not played the work at a family concert since 1998. The hush in Verizon Hall was testimony that for all the talk of our world-weary, media-savvy, multitasking offspring, what children really love is the chance to sit down and hear a great story.
And a great storyteller. Michael Boudewyns was the narrator, as he will be when the concert is repeated in Verizon Saturday morning for the orchestra's first family concert of the season. Stars are often placed in the role as lure; recordings have featured everyone from John Gielgud to Captain Kangaroo. Boudewyns might not be a star, but he proved immensely likable and wonderfully adept at taking the characteristics of a boyish Peter, a wobbly grandfather or a coarse, belly-scratching hunter.
Boudewyns also didn't come with Julie Taymor-sized puppets, or lace his story with political wit and animal-rights preaching. What he did bring was a tone of enchantment, and, using simplicity as a form of genius, household items as stand-ins for the animals.
The bird was a yellow scarf, and the duck (as far as we could tell) was a feather-duster. The wolf was represented by a suitcase accessorized with furry strips. The cat took the form of a smart black purse. And when the hunters came out, Boudewyns used rubber plungers as proxies for guns.
You can imagine the possibilities for deploying and commingling these objects.
Conductor Rossen Milanov drew playing from the orchestra that was often incisive, sometimes not. To be perfectly accurate, this was only half the Philadelphia Orchestra, an ensemble whose smaller size springs from a labor contract that allows the orchestra to be split - so that one half plays one concert and the other half another. A happy consequence: Fewer musicians on stage usually means a better acoustic, and so it was here.
Flutist David Cramer was the agile bird, oboist Peter Smith a duck with just enough attitude, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa the craggy grandfather.
These children's concerts are a nice chance for interior players to step up to the plate. New associate concertmaster Jos Maria Blumenschein was among those who got a promotion, and was sitting in the concertmaster chair for the first time. It's a circle-of-life kind of thing.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Philadelphia Orchestra repeats Peter and the Wolf on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Also on the program is the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, with Greenfield Competition-winner Harrison Hollingsworth as soloist. Tickets are $5-$45. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.