Review: Rick Mercer, NACO bring Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to life

Rick Mercer narrated Peter and the Wolf. Photo Jon Sturge

Classical chestnuts don’t get much more familiar than Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev’s musical tale of a boy and his, er, duck has introduced generations of children to the symphony and its instruments, yet its inventive freshness never gets old. Prokofiev’s genius for orchestration and sense of humour can definitely still make this grown-up smile (was there ever a better description of a cat scampering up a tree?)

A large part of Peter and the Wolf’s appeal has always been in the narrator’s skill — in English, Peter Ustinov’s 1960 recording with von Karajan and the Philharmonia remains the nostalgic gold standard. On Saturday afternoon, NACO’s two family concerts enlisted the comedic talents of Rick Mercer to bring Prokofiev’s well-known story to life.

Mercer’s name may have attracted the parents to the show, but he has a sweet way with the small fry, and for the most part managed to keep their attention. He’s a natural raconteur, and updated the story with modern winks: internet cat meme lovers chuckled at the line, “cats hate water even more than they hate cucumbers.” Mercer’s banter with conductor Alain Trudel — no slouch in the art of audience communication — was funny and unforced.

For music lovers, of course, the orchestra is the real star of the show. Trudel and NACO delivered a lively, nuanced performance that was far from prosaic. The copacetic soloists made their characters leap off the page: Chris Millard’s scolding bassoon; Joanna G’froerer’s twittering, feather-light flute; Kimball Sykes’ slyly feline clarinet; and Chip Hamann’s elegant, sleepy oboe. Trudel got a deliciously dark, threatening colour from the French horn “wolf” trio.

The concert opened with excerpts from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, enhanced by the exuberant acrobatics of Montreal circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main. The two pianists were Yuyang Xie, a 17-year-old from Gatineau, and Ottawa’s Haotian Yu, who is barely older and studying piano and composition at the Eastman School. The pair played well together, with impressive velocity and glittering French sound, although they were perhaps a little too serious for what needs to be a romp. When you’re this young and talented, you should be having more fun.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.