Prokofiev in Palo Alto | February 1, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 1, 2013

Prokofiev in Palo Alto

Oshman Family JCC hosts a quadrilingual 'Peter and the Wolf'

by Rebecca Wallace

You can tell a lot about people from their favorite "Peter and the Wolf" recording. Do they go classic, with Lenny Bernstein narrating on vinyl? Highbrow, with Sir John Gielgud and the Royal Philharmonic? Or just completely random, with David Bowie, Weird Al, a Dixieland band or Japanese jazz quartet?

Mr. Prokofiev would surely be surprised by the sheer versatility of interpretation that his 1936 children's composition has inspired. (As would many of us who grew up with the basic Bernstein or Disney version of the simple tale about a boy at his grandfather's dacha.)

Yes, "Peter and the Wolf" has legs. Long, multicultural ones.

This month, Prokofiev's work comes to Palo Alto in four languages. A quartet of narrators will present four performances of "Peter": in English, Mandarin, Russian and Hebrew. Ming Luke, a guest conductor at the San Francisco Ballet, will conduct a chamber orchestra. (At press time, tickets to the English program had just sold out.) This will be the first Mandarin-language program held at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

"We're embarking on a new journey," said Ronit Widmann-Levy, the center's director of arts and culture. "We do have some members who speak Mandarin, at the fitness club, but we have not been programming for the Mandarin population."

Widmann-Levy, herself a seasoned opera singer, joined the JCC five months ago and is on a mission to expand the center's multicultural offerings beyond the Hebrew and Russian programs that currently exist. "Peter," with its wide appeal, seemed a good fit.

Prokofiev's composition follows a boy (Peter, played by string instruments) who goes out exploring in the forest and meadow, where he meets up with such animals as a duck (oboe), a bird (flute) and, of course, a wolf (French horn). Grandfather is played by an authoritative bassoon. Young listeners learn about different types of instruments, as well as what might happen if you're a duck and a little too slow.

Luke, who makes music education a major focus of his career, calls "Peter" an unusual schooling opportunity as well as a musical classic. "Seeing the instruments and how they can directly portray various animals, with the colors of the sounds, is timeless. There are not very many pieces like that, and it's so ingeniously composed," he said.

Interestingly, while the piece was written for children, it can be a challenge for adult musicians to play, Luke added. The flute part is often used as an excerpt to test musicians on how well they play. "It's very tricky to get really precise."

The Palo Alto performances of "Peter" are scheduled for Feb. 10, with the following narrators: Susan Pari (English), 12:30-1:30 p.m.; Derek Tam (Mandarin), 2-3 p.m.; Boris Vladimirsky (Russian), 4-5 p.m.; and Ilan Vitenberg (Hebrew), 5-6 p.m. Before and after performances, kids can make animal masks at an arts booth, or take part in an instrument "petting zoo," where they can touch the types of instruments played in the concerts.

Luke is a fan of the "zoo" idea. "Music should not be simply about sheer exposure," he said. "It's one thing to see people perform. It's another thing to have the opportunity to try it yourself."

Besides serving as assistant conductor of Opera San Jose and associate conductor of the Modesto Symphony, Luke is also associate conductor and director of education programs at the Berkeley Symphony. There he makes great efforts to involve kids in classical music, and not just as spectators.

One of his favorite Berkeley programs is "I'm a Performer," a partnership with elementary schools. First, professional musicians go into classrooms to meet the students and talk about why they love music; next, the kids go see the players perform. Lastly, the kids get to perform side-by-side with the musicians, playing simple arrangements. One can imagine the little ones, piping away on a recorder or singing.

"All musicians need to be involved in every level," Luke said. "Just being a conductor is almost a disservice," he said.

What: "Peter and the Wolf" by Sergey Prokofiev, conducted by Ming Luke and read in four languages

Where: Schultz Cultural Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Sunday, Feb. 10, with performances at 12:30 p.m. (English), 2 p.m. (Mandarin), 4 p.m. (Russian) and 5 p.m. (Hebrew). (Tickets to the English program just sold out.)

Cost: Tickets are $18 general and $15 for JCC members, students and children ages 14 and under.

Info: Go to or call 650-223-8699.


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