It had been perhaps a quarter century since I had taken a group of my New York music students to a Brooklyn Academy of Music performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter & the Wolf.” And my New York commitments this past May and June prevented me from enjoying the very front-loaded early summer concert season of the Houston Symphony here at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. But I got plenty of relief at last week’s HSO late-summer offering titled, “Peter and the Wolf (and Other Beastly Music),” it would be a joy for all concerned: audience, orchestra, conductor, (Cincinnati Symphony associate conductor, John Morris Russell), and yes, even this critic!
Appropriately, Cindy DuBois,(the pavilion’s Director of Marketing & Education), had a few opening remarks and prizes to be awarded prior to what would be a very educational concert for the many eager youngsters in the audience. She then introduced the Woodlands’ own Joel Deretchin, who spoke on behalf of Interfaith of the Woodlands, urging audience contributions to the Relief Fund for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Then the program opened with the dazzling Overture to Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute.” Its stately elegance, the lush work of HSO’s superb strings, and the excitement of the brass and percussion, made this masterpiece seem less like an overture, and more like a thrilling conclusion.
Next came several selected portions of Saint-Saëns’ delightful musical adventure, “The Carnival of the Animals.” Conductor, Russell, had great fun introducing each section, the featured instruments, and even urging the audience to practice “roaring” in anticipation of the pomp, pulsations, and roaring brass of the “Introduction and Royal March of the Lion.” The next segment, titled “The Aviary,” introduced the woodwinds and featured the lilting delicacy of the flutes in a delicious blending of bird songs. The “Elephant” segment found its deep, lumbering sounds in the double basses, with strong support from the orchestral strings. The last segment, titled, “Fossils,” had the spooky sounds of rattling bones carefully crafted by the xylophones and other percussion.
Then it was time for the main event, “Peter and the Wolf.” Set in the Russian countryside of a hundred years ago, young Peter’s lighthearted theme came from the strings. Wandering away from grandpa (bassoon theme), and outside the gate of his home, Peter meets the flitting bird (flute theme), the waddling duck (oboe theme), the stealthy cat (clarinet theme), and the ominous wolf (his theme from 3 eerie French horns). Our journey through their adventures was guided by the wonderful narration of Woodlands resident, D’Artagnan Bebel. Mr. Bebel is Vice President and General Manager with two Houston television stations: Fox channel 26 and UPN channel 20. Let’s add to those credits the role of excellent storyteller. His was an affectionate, relaxed, and joyful reading of Prokofiev’s narrative, and the audience was delighted when he announced the captured wolf was being taken to the Houston Zoo!
The outstanding orchestra, meanwhile, captured all the excitement and musical colors of this very visual composition. No video was needed in order for the audience to imagine the thrashing of the wolf as Peter captures him. We could visualize the marching hunters as the trumpets blared, and we could hear their rifles in the pounding tympani. And perhaps best of all was the proud and merry victory parade that closed the piece. It was a special victory, too, for the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
(The Courier 9.4.05)