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13 May 2009

Katy Abbott: The Peasant Prince

Adelaide // SA // 09.05.2009

Illustration for <em>The Peasant Prince</em> by Anne Spudvilas Image: Illustration for The Peasant Prince by Anne Spudvilas  

I walk through the narrow single-door entrance off Hindley Street into the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Grainger Studio, following several hurrying families. The trombonist is chatting to a staff member just outside and looks quite relaxed in his bright red t-shirt, so I conclude that I can’t be running late after all, or at least not too late. Inside, half the audience (the younger half, mostly primary school-aged children) are seated on the floor down the front, while I take one of the seats up the back. ‘Who has read The Peasant Prince?’ asks conductor Benjamin Northey, and a sea of hands is raised enthusiastically.

This is an excellent idea for an orchestra’s ‘education program’ concert: taking a well-known children’s picture book and having an Australian composer set it to music. A familiar story is bound to get children and their families interested, being something they already relate to, thereby (hopefully) offering a pathway into the ‘mysteries’ of other orchestral music.

The Peasant Prince is quite widely known, having been named Picture Book of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards and the Honour Book in the Children's Book Council Awards 2008. Judging by the raised hands, almost every child in attendance at this performance was already familiar with the true and inspiring story being told: Li Cunxin, the boy plucked from poverty and obscurity in rural China to become, after much determination and hard work, a world-renowned ballet dancer.

Before the actual music got underway, there was the obligatory ‘introducing the orchestra’ part, carried out by conductor Benjamin Northey. His wonderfully clear and direct manner of speaking and asking questions makes him ideal for this role, and just to make it even easier, he was helped by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra wearing colour-coded t-shirts. (The mysterious ‘trombone viola’, for those who read the program and were wondering, was in red and so belongs to the brass family).

This introduction was taken a step further when the composer, Katy Abbott, was introduced and spoke about the work, also giving some insight to the children on how a composer (who is actually alive and Australian!) thinks and puts together sounds to make music, and to convey feelings or ideas. Without overdoing it, several key themes and musical ideas were then demonstrated by the orchestra, so they could be easily recognised during the story.

It was certainly a multimedia event. The orchestra was clearly the main focus, despite its reduced state (single winds and brass, percussion, harp, and a handful of strings) – and felt close enough to touch for those down the front. On a screen above them, the familiar illustrations from the book, by Anne Spudvilas, were projected. The story itself was read by narrator Cameron Goodall and a few simple lighting effects helped transform the rehearsal studio into a concert venue, without losing its relaxed, close and friendly feel.

All these contrasting aspects were brought into focus by the music, and Katy Abbott’s composition fulfilled its purpose of enhancing the direction and emotions of the story (‘bringing it to life’) admirably. The beginning especially was highly effective, evoking a misty past, a setting of rural Northern China – somewhat difficult to do with just the still shot of smudges (clouds) from the book being projected onto the screen. Abbott used simple and clear musical material (sustained semitones with string harmonics and bowed glockenspiel), but it was cleverly orchestrated to create just the right texture. This proved true for the remainder of the piece, and in terms of content it was always appropriate and clear. Later, Abbott’s rhythmically forward-driven but sustained writing was a wonderful accompaniment to Li Cunxin’s gradual rise as a ballet dancer and eye-opening experience of the world beyond his village. The contrasting moments of his poignant loneliness were also captured effectively, never sounding forced or artificial. It was a fine performance, but I felt that a lot of the orchestra could’ve played this emotionally direct music with more of the passion it needed – this seems to be a recurring complaint about many orchestras, and I’ve never understood why it should be a problem.

The relationship between the narrator’s voice and the orchestra was ambitious, with the music underscoring the story text in most cases. Although Cameron Goodall’s voice was clear, sometimes too much melodic interest in the orchestral music made it hard to focus on essential parts of the story.

Katy Abbott’s music was certainly very colourful, as it needed to be, but I thought perhaps the exploration of contrasting colours was a little overdone (passing melodic material around between several contrasting instruments and sections within just a few bars), resulting in the effect wearing off a little by the time the story reached really colourful moments (Li Cunxin visiting America, for instance).

This is also related to my one other small complaint, which is potentially more subjective: I felt that the story moved a little too slowly. There could be many different reasons for this (not all of them purely musical), but I think the music could’ve been a little more concise in places; sometimes, when the narration had stopped for a while, it began to feel a little aimless, despite its driven character.

However, all these were relatively minor concerns, and for what it wanted to achieve – a dynamic, engaging and moving retelling of this popular story – Katy Abbott’s music was a success. As for its broader purpose of showing younger audiences how to engage with orchestral music, I can’t really judge, but I see no reason to doubt that it achieved this also.

To cap it all off, after the music had finished came the biggest surprise of all, when it was revealed that Li Cunxin, the author and main character of the story, was actually in the audience (he has now retired from dancing and lives in Melbourne). He was clearly very moved by the whole event, and took a while to compose himself enough to answer the kids’ multitude of questions. And so everything in this collaborative project came together wonderfully well in the end: new Australian music, together with a young and enthusiastic audience – just what we need more of!

Event Details

The Peasant Prince
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Katy Abbott – composer
Li Cunxin – author
Anne Spudvilas – illustrator
Cameron Goodall – narrator
Benjamin Northey – conductor
Tammy Hall - producer
Saturday 9 May
Grainger Studio, Adelaide SA

Further links

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (www.aso.com.au)
'Tale told just the right way', Graham Strahle's review in The Australian

Subjects discussed by this article:

This David Lang is not the New York-based composer (yet), but he is studying composition at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. He also finds the time to play trumpet and piano, conduct, sing, volunteer on radio, read, write... and occasionally even attend musical events like this one!


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