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Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf' (And Scott Simon)

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Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf' (And Scott Simon)

Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf' (And Scott Simon)

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Prokofiev's�"Peter and the Wolf"�is considered a classic symphonic piece with special appeal for children. It's the story of an enterprising little boy named Peter, who, together with a duck, a cat and a bird, outsmarts a wolf and hunters. It's been narrated by some of the world's great vocal actors, including Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, and Dame Edna Everage.

But not this year.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Let's go once, Scott, from page 29.

SIMON: Okay.

Ms. ALSOP: Let's do that little section in there.

SIMON: And now this is how the situation...

Ms. ALSOP: Yes, perfect.

SIMON: Okay. Begin.

And now, this is how the situation was. The cat was sitting...

Maestro Marin Alsop is conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and me performing "Peter and the Wolf" this weekend. I've narrated other symphonic works. Well, one of them: Aaron Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait." But everyone from Illinois except Rod Blagojevich has narrated that.

But "Peter and the Wolf" is the piece that's introduced millions of children to classical music, especially the Leonard Bernstein version with the New York Philharmonic.

Ms. ALSOP: The narrative that we're doing together is a slightly adapted narrative that Bernstein, he gives it more personalization. He places Peter (unintelligible) instead of just saying in the meadow, he says in the meadow next to his house. I like that about the Bernstein narrative, because it really, I mean, it puts you right there.

SIMON: Early one morning, Peter opened the gate and went into the big green meadow next to his house.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: You know, Prokofiev was, like all musicians, composers, had to travel a lot and so he separated from his family. And when he was approached by a theater company to write a piece for kids, he thought it'd be a great way to connect and really I think make a meaningful contribution to children. I mean, little did he know that this would be the piece that would introduce all of us to classical music.

I heard this piece when, oh my gosh, I think I was three years old. I had the recording of Bernstein narrating, which is the narration that we're using. And I used to play it all day long, all the time. My mother and father, they still can narrate with the same accent. You know what I mean? They had to listen to it so many times.

SIMON: And are there special challenges to doing a piece with narration?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, not when I do it with someone like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The duck's quacking became even louder than before, and in her excitement she jumped right out of the pond.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: But no matter how fast the duck tried to waddle away, she couldn't escape the wolf. He was getting nearer...

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: ...and nearer...

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: ...catching up with her.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And, bang, he got her, and with one gulp he swallowed her.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: I think that this piece is relatively - I mean, I say this with trepidation - but almost nothing can go wrong because the way Prokofiev has structured it, there's a lot of music in between the narrative. It's not as though, you know, you have to say it exactly at this spot or exactly at that spot. I think there's some room also for interpretation. You're very dramatic when you narrate the piece, and I think it really allows for individuality.

SIMON: And above them all flew the little bird, chirping merrily. My, what fine fellows we are, Peter and I. Look what we have caught.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: A whole wolf - sorry. How could I miss that.

Now, you knew Len Bernstein. Did, I mean, is it...

Ms. ALSOP: He never narrated "Peter and the Wolf" for me, unfortunately. But...

SIMON: But did he ever say to you something like, and remember, Marin, when you're conducting this piece some day or something, no?

Ms. ALSOP: No. I mean, he always yelled at me but not about that. No. He was an incredible storyteller himself. And I went to a rehearsal when I was a teenager and he was conducting a Haydn symphony with the New York Philharmonic. And he threw his baton down; I thought, oh my gosh, this is going to be dramatic. And he said, do I have to tell you people the story of this Haydn symphony? Real grown-ups said, oh yes, yes, yes, please, please, please, please tell us. You know, it was that kind of magic when he told a story.

And I think that's why I love his narration to "Peter and the Wolf." It's, of course, true to the original but it's very much through his own eyes.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: And now this is how the situation was. A cat was sitting on one branch of the big tree...

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: ...and the bird on another branch...

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: ...not too close to the cat.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: On my way here today, I ran into a man you may know: John Mauceri, who's doing "Porgy and Bess."

Ms. ALSOP: Right.

SIMON: And John said to me, he said, Do you know - the way John talks - that Prokofiev studied for two weeks with Walt Disney, and you can hear that, of course, in "Peter and the Wolf," because that's where Prokofiev learned to be able to match the music and narration.

Ms. ALSOP: Hmm. You know, it's a little bit like knowing a fact and then you can't get away from that fact about someone. Oh, well, now I understand how you did this. I mean, when you listen just to the music, it's completely Prokofiev. I mean, it's got those little edgy things and discords, and you know, I wouldn't have necessarily said that he needed any help doing what he did so incredibly well.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: As it turns out, by the way, Prokofiev didn't meet Walt Disney until 1938, two years after he wrote "Peter and the Wolf." So who influenced whom?

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Finally, any instructions, coach?

Ms. ALSOP: Okay. Listen: the bowing is the hard part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: It's all about the bowing, so we've got to practice that.

SIMON: I made a terrible mistake doing "Lincoln Portrait" once with New Jersey Symphony.

Ms. ALSOP: What did you do?

SIMON: Well, I bowed to the orchestra, which had the effect of mooning the audience.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh my God. Well, if your pants fell down, now that could really be a show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: First two nights so far I've managed to keep my pants up. From the first plucking and tuning of the orchestra through the captivating sensation of hearing your voice soar alongside violins and trumpets, to the uplifting swell of sound you feel at the end of the piece when the last few notes leave you waiting anxiously for applause.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - and me - perform "Peter and the Wolf" again tonight at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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