The Honolulu Symphony's program — (Lost Composer) Giacchino's "Suite and Savory" from Disney's animated film "Ratatouille," Prokofiev's musical tale of "Peter and the Wolf," and Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet — drew a large, enthusiastic audience filled with children of all ages. (The program will be performed again at 4 p.m. today at the Blaisdell Concert Hall; call 877-750-4400.)
Delfs explained that when assembling this season, he was intentionally experimenting — grouping three piano concertos, including light classical composers, choosing themes, and so on — to see how audiences would react. For this concert, he was looking for "a dramatic program, a colorful program ... and it turned out to be very popular with families."
The popularity of music that tells stories (known as "program music") is easy enough to understand: not only does music make stories more vibrant, but stories help children learn how music conveys meaning. For many people, their love of classical music began through program music of one kind or another, where they could follow the music through the story. Even young people who know little of classical music rhapsodize about the music from their favorite films.
With the music for "Ratatouille," a story about a rat who cooks, composer Michael Giacchino arranged excerpts into a synopsis that closely follows the film. From its rural beginning and wild ride in the sewers to its contented close in the family bistro, the music triggers memories — the elegance of the restaurant, the busy kitchen, the romance. Listeners can retrace the story mentally if they know it well, but if not, can remember it in musically triggered snippets and flashes.
Program music is easiest to enjoy when there is no need for prior knowledge, that is, when the story is interwoven with the music, as in "Peter and the Wolf," which is one of the reasons this work is so well loved.
Narrator Jorge Garcia, best known for his work on TV's "Lost" series, opted for a laid-back approach, as though he were a favorite uncle telling a bedtime story, adopting different voices for the various characters.
Garcia seemed at times ill at ease with the frequent switching between music and text, but handled it well, picking up Delfs' cues without missing a beat. He was most relaxed, and most charming, in his asides, as when he gasped upon reading that the wolf swallowed the duck whole, or when he added, "On the other hand, boys like me are very afraid of wolves."
People laughed in all the right places, and children beamed in pleasure. One older child even whispered, "Uh-oh — it's not gonna turn out good for the duck."
In program music, the story is an essential component of the performance. The music can be entertaining on its own, but its coherence, meaning, and structure are bound to something outside itself.
Although Stravinsky provided abridged suites of his "Firebird" music, Delfs chose to play the original work, because "only in the original score do you hear this young genius unbridled."
While that is true, if listeners do not know the storyline, the sections and their sequencing make little sense, however brilliantly the music depicts its scenes. Stravinsky's "Firebird" music is well known, but the ballet and storyline are less so. And unfortunately, the symphony's program notes referred only vaguely to the story, and the program's listing of the sections was both incomplete and in French, leaving many in the audience at a loss.
Some in the audience quite understandably began clapping after the climax ending Act I because there was no way for them to know where they were at that point.
In brief, while hunting one day, Prince Ivan catches sight of the brilliantly colored Firebird and chases it into the enchanted gardens of Kastchei, an evil ogre who captures women and petrifies men. Prince Ivan hides and watches the Firebird dance, then leaps out and captures it. The Firebird begs for its life, presenting him with one of its flame-colored feathers as a token of its pledge to help him in exchange for freedom.
Thirteen enchanted princesses, Kastchei's captives, enter the gardens and play a game with golden apples. Watching, Prince Ivan falls in love with one of them and startles them with his appearance. After some hesitation, they allow him to join them in a dance. At the approach of dawn, they return to the ogre's palace, where he cannot follow.
When Prince Ivan attempts to breach the palace gates, a magic carillon sounds, bringing forth Kastchei and his multitude of guardian monsters. Ivan is captured and about to be turned into stone when he remembers the feather and summons the Firebird to his aid. The Firebird bewitches Kastchei and his monsters so that they dance the famous "Infernal Dance" until they are exhausted, and the Firebird lulls them to sleep.
The Firebird then reveals the secret of Kastchei's immortality to Prince Ivan, who destroys the egg that holds Kastchei's soul. His magic broken, Kastchei, his palace, and all his magical creatures disappear. Those Kastchei had enslaved — the captive princesses and petrified knights — reawaken, and the Firebird flies free amid general rejoicing.
Delfs and the symphony gave a wonderful performance of "Firebird" – of all three works, in fact. The many soloists were excellent, the orchestra played with focus and passion, and Delfs wove enchanting tales. The evening was quite simply a delight and well worth hearing.