“Peter and the Wolf,” the classic work of Sergei Prokofiev, has been performed in countless guises over its 80-year history. It is often presented as a work for children, but the St. Louis Symphony is challenging that assumption with its next performance of the work over Thanksgiving weekend.
“’Peter and the Wolf’ is often relegated to concerts for children or family concerts,” said David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony’s music director. “While I particularly love family concerts and have great memories and think they are very important, they tend to be looked down upon. Either by people who are without family or people who say ‘that’s for children, it’s not for me,’ whereas ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is such a beautiful piece of music and so incredibly deep.”
Much like when you re-read a children’s classic and learn wisdom you could never have garnered as a child, symphony audiences can find a “real connection to the universal and eternal message” in the piece, said Robertson.
Abstract visualization: a new way to portray the piece
In order to better portray ‘Peter and the Wolf’ away from the realm of children’s music, the symphony reached out to Webster University to have student artists from the university’s School of Fine Arts reimagine the work in a more abstract way. The partnership was “new territory,” said Webster president Beth Stroble.
Blake Manns, a lighting design student at the university, said that his group was ecstatic when they got the opportunity to work with the symphony.
“The concept was that we were going for an edgier, more contemporary look,” Manns said. “So we started looking at Russian modern dark art and things that would capture the attention of both adults and children in the audience.”
The students worked to create a hi-tech projection design through one of the school’s “independent learning experiences.” The result? A more abstract and symbolic look at the classic piece of music. This is not Disney animation.
“Peter and the Wolf is a story of travel and experiencing new things beyond the greater unknown,” Manns said. “With the style of watercolor running and sort of an abstract feeling to it, it is exploration of the unknown.”
When asked how long it took his group of four students to conceptualize and implement the projections, Manns quickly said “getting a quantitative number on that is a difficult challenge.”
“The thing with artists is there’s the iceberg,” Robertson filled in. “There’s the part where you clock in, ‘Okay, I did two hours on this today,’ but then there are the other 22 hours where you spent thinking and dreaming about it. It really is one of those things that the whole being is involved with it.”
Recognizing the power of first hearing ‘Peter and the Wolf’
While the performance of the piece itself is not particularly childlike, the first hearing of “Peter and the Wolf” leaves a lasting impression. Stroble, for example, admitted she owns the David Bowie narration of the music in her LP collection. “That was a unique artistic approach to the story,” she said.
Robertson shared that the first full score he ever received was a collection of four Prokofiev works—one of which was “Peter and the Wolf,” and another, the composer’s “Classical” symphony, will be performed next weekend. He was in a music store in Los Angeles with his music teacher when he excited exclaimed about a beautiful reprint of the scores.
“One of the people who worked at the music shop was clearly so taken by this overenthusiastic young man that he reached up, pulled it off the shelf and handed it to me,” Robertson said. “While I know many versions of ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ that sense of the sheer joy and music being rewarded by a complete stranger, but a stranger that shared this kind of childlike enthusiasm for music is something that, for me, just infuses the notion not only of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ but of the whole exchange between people who love the music.”
Pairing ‘Peter’ for ultimate fantasy
Prokofiev’s works will also be paired with “The Snow Maiden” suite by Rimsky-Korsakov, which also has a fairytale aspect, and a world premiere of a concerto for the contrabass by Tan Dun called “The Wolf. That piece asks the question, “how much is the wolf ‘the other’ and how much is the wolf a reflection of ourselves?”
St. Louis’ classical musical aficionados may remember Dun’s work from a performance of his “Water Concerto,” when those sitting in the front row at the St. Louis Symphony had to wear rain ponchos. Others who are not so savvy may know Dun as the mastermind behind the score to Ang Li’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
What: David Robertson Conducts the St. Louis Symphony in Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and Symphony No. 1 "Classical," Tan Dun's "Contrabass Concerto: The Wolf" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden" Suite
When: Nov. 27 and 28 at 8:00 p.m., November 29, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.
Where: Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103
“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.