John Devlin – conductor


Peter and the Wolf

The Louisville Orchestra
John Devlin, conductor
Jessica Wortham, narrator

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

It had been a while since last I attended a Louisville Orchestra performance geared toward families with children. So, what better piece to reacquainted with a youthful audience than Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. And the bouncing, playfulness, and excitement of being there by the kiddos was certainly noticed

Our guest conductor, John Devlin, newly appointed as the Music Director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, is a fan of mixing musical styles up within his performances. Previously, Mr. Devlin has held the baton for other organizations, such as the National Symphony Orchestra and the American Repertory Ballet. Maestro Devlin is also, like our own Teddy Abrams, one of a handful of music directors who lead a professional symphony orchestra while under the age of 40. Mr. Devlin’s youth and exuberance were on full display as he introduced the program, along with our guest narrator, Jessica Wortham.

Chances are that if you have attended the theater in and around the Kentuckiana area, especially if you are a fan of Actors Theatre, you have seen Ms. Wortham’s talents on display. After some time in New York working with new plays, Ms. Wortham found her way back home and has been busy ever since. When not on stage she is in the recording studio providing audio transcripts for the American Printing House for the Blind as well as other audiobooks.

Before serving us a little appetizer with W.A. Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, our guests engaged with the young audience about what one can hear when listening to music, whether it has words or not. While our Louisville Orchestra could probably perform this piece with their eyes closed, this afternoon’s concert had a clean and clear tonality. Perhaps it was because of the different hall or paneling, but to my ear, it was pretty close to perfect. Upon the overture’s swift conclusion, Ms. Wortham asked the audience what kinds of feelings or thoughts came to the children’s minds as they heard the notes. Words such as happy, exciting, and fun were shared from both levels of the Brown Theatre. Perhaps one of my favorite responses was “people coming together because it sounded like running”. If you know the opera, this was not a wrong answer. 

Another point of discussion with the audience was the use of motifs. If you are unfamiliar with this musical phrase, it simply means sort of a musical text that serves as a distinctive feature, like a character in a story. And while there can be several motifs in a piece, they tend to blend together into a large theme, often without losing their originality.

The Orchestra and Mr. Devlin happily shared what the motifs are and what instruments are predominantly used within Peter and the Wolf and asked the audience to pay close attention as it would help in following the story: the bird chirps away in the sounds of the flute, while the mischievous cat can be heard in the clarinet. Not to be missed is the silly duck quaking away in the oboes, as the grandfather lumbers onto the field in the notes of the bassoon. While the hunters come barging onto the scene from the tympani section, our hero Peter is found within the strings. But what about the wolf? 

There are few motifs written in the classical canon as perfect as the one written for the bad wolf within this tale. When one hears the French horns blowing the wolf’s sinister sound, you instantaneously know that this is not a cool character and danger is lurking about.

With a lively narration, Ms. Wortham was on cue for all of the points and was engaging and fun to watch. However, I would have loved to have seen a bit more reaction when the poor little duck got swallowed up. Perhaps she did something a bit more audible, but there was a small block of music where her delivery was overshadowed by the orchestra. 

Despite some flaws in the sound mix, Peter was an absolute delight to hear again, and judging from the applause the audience enjoyed it too. In fact, when Peter catches the wolf, I could hear cheers from the small voices.

To close out the afternoon, and keeping with the hunting theme, we heard the fourth movement, La chasse (The chase): Presto, of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 73 in D Major, commonly called The Hunt. Using a similar motif or theme, the piece absolutely brings a chase to the listener’s mind. With the use of horns alerting the hunting party of finding its quarry, fox or wolf, one can almost hear the pounding of the horses and the barking of the hounds.

Sunday’s performance was a fantastic reminder of what it is like to hear music through the ears of a young person and to see their excitement. While health protocols did not allow for playtime for the children to participate in before or after the concert, the Louisville Orchestra provided Do-It-Yourself kits for the kids to take home and create their own duck mask. Also, the program provided a very adorable coloring page that featured Peter and the Wolf characters, its composer, and the instruments within the orchestra. To be honest, I was ready to grab a kit and box of crayons and have some fun myself!

Bravi Tutti!!

Peter and the Wolf

January 23, 2022

Louisville Orchestra
The Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.