Works of music having animals as themes seem to take on a life of their own. Camille Saint-Saëns refused to allow performances of Carnival of the Animals (except for “The Swan” movement) in his lifetime for fear its popularity would overshadow his other works and tarnish his reputation as a serious composer. Similarly, Peter and the Wolf has become Sergei Prokofiev’s best-known work to the general population, despite his other significant and much more serious compositions.
As Maestro James Fellenbaum introduced Peter and the Wolf to the audience gathered for the 2009-2010 season opening concert of the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra, he offered the comment that the work is probably not performed as often as one imagines…and I concur. I’m not really sure when I last heard the work. But I do know that my last hearing was not in a concert hall at all, but in the stop-action animated film version from 2008 directed by Suzie Templeton that featured the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Mark Stephenson. Dark and quite bleak, that intriguing film won the 2008 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. UT Symphony’s telling, with an excellent and comically theatrical narration from WUOT’s Daniel Berry, was much more what audiences have grown to expect.
Peter’s animal friends—the Duck, the Bird, and the stealthy Cat—are represented by an oboe, flute, and clarinet respectively, all done solidly by the UT orchestral players. Peter, who is represented by the string section, becomes an unwitting hero, and tricks the Wolf (French horns), who has apparently been menacing the countryside—as well as Peter’s animal friends. I feel obligated to mention that the horn parts were performed by guest players—the reasons for which are obvious and unfortunate.
I really can’t hear enough Mendelssohn these days—and being the 200th anniversary of his birth, there’s no better time. His Hebrides Overture opened the concert and helped soothe any jangled nerves that might have been lurking in either the audience or the orchestra.
The second half of the concert consisted of two works which on the surface have really nothing in common: Samuel Barber’s Essay for Orchestra and Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. However, in each piece, motives move between instruments to great effect—deliberately and presentationally in the Britten and abstractly in the Barber. Conducting student Rachel Grubb took the podium to conduct the Britten, and did so with confidence, boldly handling the fugal manipulations. Maestro Fellenbaum, himself, provided an excellent narration and presentation.