A version of this article appeared in The Age, September 29, 2011.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conductor Brett Kelly only has to hum the first bars of Peter and the Wolf, and a familiar picture enters the mind: disobedient little Peter marching away from his grandfather's house through the gate into the meadow, looking for adventure.
Written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935 to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra, Peter and the Wolf has been a staple of music education ever since. “It really is a part of our collective unconscious,” Kelly says of the opening melody, played on the strings. “It's not only powerful in its own right, but it's been copied a million times to create a similar feeling of comfort and ease and happiness and youthfulness, always with the slightest hint that something is going to go wrong.”
Kelly is conducting a series of school holiday performances of Peter and the Wolf at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, to accompany a stop-motion animated film made by British director Suzie Templeton in 2006. He says that the style of Templeton's animation came as a surprise, “a little bit grittier and grimier than I was picturing.” The setting is modern Russia at the dead of winter, in a rundown city roamed by gangs; Peter, in his grubby orange parka, looks wild-eyed and under-fed.
Unlike in nearly all earlier versions of the piece, there's no narrator; but the story devised by Prokofiev himself remains intact, with each character represented by an instrument of the orchestra. Grandfather, slow and grumpy, is a bassoon. A twittering bird is a flute, a sneaky cat is a clarinet, and the sinister wolf is a trio of French horns.
It's a tale that might have been conceived for cinema, full of action and suspense: everything depends on the physical layout of the setting, carefully specified in the original text. When the wolf appears in the meadow, both the cat and the bird scurry up a tree; Prokofiev tells us to imagine “the bird sitting on one branch and the cat on another, not too close.”
Having conducted many film scores over the years, Kelly compares this current project to “doing a live movie"; the difference is that Templeton's animation was designed to match Prokofiev's score, rather than the other way around. As a result, he says, the relationship between sound and image is unusually “clear and direct": the music accompanies the action step by step, rather than commenting obliquely or foreshadowing events yet to come. Indeed, there are long balletic sequences where characters walk, glide or scuttle along to the beat – a technique known as “Mickey Mousing” in tribute to Walt Disney, who pioneered it in his early shorts (and who produced his own adaptation of Peter and the Wolf in the 1940s). Getting the timing just right is a challenge for Kelly, who has to be familiar with the film in every detail. “I've probably watched it fifteen or twenty times already.”
From a purely musical point of view, he describes Peter and the Wolf as an “instrumentally virtuosic” work, making resourceful use of a relatively small orchestra. “That wolf theme is like the best version of a horror movie theme you've ever heard, and everyone else has just done second-rate copies for the last seventy-five years.”
Kelly says that his favorite character is Peter, whom he imagines as close to the age of his own thirteen-year-old son. “God, that's a complicated world, isn't it? You've got all these urges, you want to explore, you're attracted to dangerous situations but the problem is they're dangerous. You've got to deal with bullies, you've got wolves, and you've got friends who you might lose...”
He laughs, as if the resonance of the story is still sinking in. “You think of your own childhood, and you think, how did I get through that? How did that work out?”