Words, music – and film : Jenny McLeod and Serge Prokofiev

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presents:

JENNY McLEOD – The Emperor and the Nightingale

SERGE PROKOFIEV  – Peter and the Wolf

Helen Medlyn (narrator – “The Emperor and the Nightingale”)

Suzie Templeton (director, Breakthru Films, UK – “Peter and the Wolf”)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 9th March 2012

I’ve never forgotten my delight in reading, a number of years ago, a Charles M. Schulz “Peanuts” comic featuring Marcie and Peppermint Patti at a Symphony Concert, waiting for a performance of “Peter and the Wolf to begin. In the comic strip Marcie, her face suddenly brightening, whispers conspiratorially to her companion, just before the music starts,  “Maybe this time the wolf will get him!”.  I didn’t feel her comment was an indictment of either story or music – merely a reaction to the prospect of yet another humdrum performance.

Had Helen Medlyn narrated “Peter and the Wolf” on that or this present occasion (as I’m sure she’s done at some stage or other), I feel certain that no-one would have thought the occasion in any way humdrum or routine. As it was, her input regarding this concert was confined to the narration of Jenny McLeod’s setting of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor and the Nightingale”. Her performance was, I thought, riveting – she made every word of the story “zing” in places and “ping” in others, and gave the impression that she’d established some kind of “universal” eye contact with her audience all at once, so that we were undoubtedly transfixed by her storyteller persona’s sheer presence.

Though some time ago, I well remember playing in the percussion section of the Manawatu Sinfonia for a performance of McLeod’s delightful realization of Andersen’s story – I can’t recall the exact year, though it was around 1991 or 1992, at the time the Mayor of Palmerston North was Paul Rieger – because he was the narrator! (He was no Helen Medlyn, of course – but as much as a standard “celebrity appearance” could deliver he didn’t let the side down). I don’t remember the composer being present for this performance, but my memory is that it was done beautifully, our modest orchestra surpassing itself for the occasion.

With that experience in mind, what truly astonished me during this recent NZSO performance was the actual sound and impact of the orchestra – the timbres and colours uncharacteristically (for this venue) bright and sharp and to the fore, with the brass-playing in particular making a delightfully visceral impression throughout. Had the orchestra been “brought forward” on the platform, as it were? I didn’t think so – what I put it down to was Hamish McKeich’s encouragement of the players to “play out”, and make certain details really tell. Quite apart from being arresting in itself, the playing was thus able to match the narrator’s “larger-than-life” deliver of the text with similarly characterful instrumental tones.

A scintillation of exotic wonderment from the orchestra launched the music; and after Helen Medlyn’s beautifully-delivered opening statement, there was more of what seemed like the full panoply of orientalism in music refracted through Western sensibilities – pastiche it might have been, but the composer’s grasp of orchestral use was mightily impressive and resulted in some beautifully-focused and characterful sounds. Though in places reminiscent of Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye”, the music readily found its own idiosyncratic character in some episodes, such as the angularities of the courtiers’ journey into the forest following behind the little kitchen-girl, and the inventive, slightly off-beat sonorities given to creatures such as cows and frogs.

Kirstin Eade’s flute-playing (depicting the voice and character of the little nightingale) was gorgeously turned at all points, and deftly characterised with many different colorings. Alongside her, the orchestra’s detailing was woven of similar magic, beautifully unhurried in its unfolding throughout, and (as I’ve said) flaring up excitingly in the bigger, grander moments. Much less obviously a quasi-instructional exercise for those unfamiliar with orchestral and instrumental sounds than the Prokofiev work, McLeod’s music nevertheless seemed beautifully tailored to the Anderson story, perhaps not as “leitmotiv-driven” than was “Peter”, nor as pungently and vividly characterized – but sufficiently colourful and incident-detailed to work successfully, especially in these performers’ hands.

Chalk followed on from cheese, so to speak, with British film-maker Suzie Templeton’s adaptation of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” story, in a trice taking us all to the movies, via a big screen, and with the luxury of a live-performance soundtrack (the film did have its own non–musical sound effects). For anybody expecting a standard, narrator-driven presentation of the work, it would have come as a huge shock, less on account of the spoken words’ absence, and more due to the harshness of the film-maker’s setting. In a half-urban, half-rural setting, Peter and his Grandfather live in a house on the outskirts of a town, making Peter prey to both the Wolf from within the forest and the town bullies from the urban jungle. What Prokofiev depicted as an idyllic rural existence for a boy and his animals, here is shown to be a somewhat fraught, law-of-the-jungle, siege-mentality scenario, almost of the “film noir” variety in places. There were children (and adults) in the audience who found it all a bit too much, though a lot of the (very audible) angst would, I’m sure, have been due to thwarted expectation – on its own terms, the presentation, though not without contentious elements, was, in my view, stunning.

Conductor Hamish McKeich, God bless ‘im, did at the outset nudge us in the direction of the composer’s original intentions by getting the orchestral soloists (as well as the strings) to play the “themes” of the story’s characters (though, for the benefit of us sight-restricted “ground floor concertgoers” it would have been great if every player had been able to stand up while giving us each of the character portraits). Of course, the presence of a film reduced the importance of this process; and indeed the compelling on-screen character-animations and evocative settings throughout put the orchestra’s contribution somewhat in the shade, beautifully though the score was realized by conductor and players.

The experience, cheek-by-jowl with the Jenny McLeod work, made me realize the extent to which our senses and perceptions interact with one another depending upon the nature of whatever stimuli we’re encountering. Suddenly, the orchestra who had played the “Emperor and the Nightingale” music during the first half so vibrantly and engagingly now sounded relatively distant and once-removed, the sounds coming to us as if in a kind of dream, refracted through those images we were all so readily involved with. At times it seemed as though this was no children’s story, but a life-and-death struggle against archetypal forces of darkness, the film-maker, for example “squaring Peter up” to his town-bully tormentors, whose brutality was unvarnishedly depicted. And there was no room for sentimentality – the drop-dead cuteness of Peter’s duck was unremittingly savaged by the wolf (causing the bulk of noticeable audience carnage), those cathartic sounds of a poor creature swallowed whole and therefore still alive, here given no fulfillment of expression, no cause for rejoicing.

Audience participation and involvement throughout, it must be said, was gratifyingly palpable – and if, at the end Charles M. Schulz’s Marcie didn’t get her wish, there was certainly a new twist to the old tale, if one which seemed to unfortunately tie up a loose end that hitherto belonged to the hapless duck, and put paid to her one chance of survival. It seemed to me that Peter’s loyalty towards his small, awkward but obviously lovable friend was sacrificed by the film-maker in favour of a new denouement evoking some kind of libertarian impulse on the part of the hero, in favor of the wolf. Still, it’s hardly surprising in a day and age that seems to actively concern itself with the welfare of perpetrators of crimes, and pay lip service to the suffering of the victims. (In this case, no less a philosopher than Basil Fawlty might have observed, “Well, if you’re a duck – you’re rather stuck!”)….

Technically, the animation resembled those early stop-frame cartoons with the jerky movements that older children like myself remember from our earliest times; and the results are certainly engaging, the figures and their movements having an uncanny realism, a properly tactile effect. I think it was the direct, somewhat primitive aspect of it all (wrought by extremely sophisticated technology and painstaking skill) which heightened the characters’ capacities for expressive gesture, which, of course, had to serve for actual words throughout. In effect, the film represented the substitution, for a well-known story’s retelling, of one powerful communication tool for another, the latter very much for our time. It’s well worth tracking down and watching, and especially with friends who enjoy heated discussion!








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