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Program Notes: Musical Fables (January 27-28, 2024)


January 27-28, 2024

Ken Page, narrator

Grégoire Pont, illustrator and animator

Albert Roussel

Le Festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast)

Ballet-pantomime with animations by Grégoire Pont 

Prelude (A Garden) – 

Entrance of the Ants – 

Entrance of the Dung Beetles – 

Dance of the Butterfly – 

Dance of the Spider – 

Entrance of the Fruit Worms – 

Warlike entrance of two Praying Mantises – 

Round-dance of the Ants – 

Hatching of the Mayfly – 

Dance of the Mayfly – 

Death of the Mayfly – 

The Spider’s Agony – 

Funeral of the Mayfly – Night falls on the lonely garden


Francis Poulenc

Les Animaux modèles (The Model Animals) 

Suite from the ballet with narrated fables from La Fontaine 

Le petit jour (Day Break) 

Le lion amoureux (The Lion in Love) 

L’homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses 

(The Middle-Aged Man and His Two Mistresses) 

La mort et la bûcheron (Death and the Woodcutter) 

Les deux coqs (The Two Roosters) 

Le repas de midi (The Midday Meal) Aries

Ken Page, narrator

Sergei Prokofiev

Peter & the Wolf Live

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in synchronization with 

Suzie Templeton’s animated film 


Program Notes

One of music’s superpowers is its ability to tell stories, arouse emotions, and speak to our experience. Music can do this even at its most abstract—in the concertos and symphonies that make up the core of an orchestra’s repertoire—but add a narrative and the effect is magnified a hundredfold. And in this concert, Music Director Stéphane Denève proves the point. 

Before intermission Denève has programmed two French ballet scores that the SLSO will be performing for the first time but of which he has long been a champion: The Spider’s Feast by Albert Roussel and Les Animaux modèles by Francis Poulenc. Both works premiered to acclaim in Paris theaters, but have since fallen out of the ballet repertoire, surviving as rarely heard jewels in the concert hall. 

What unites them—indeed what unites the whole program—is their animal characters. Roussel’s ballet is populated by insects and a fierce and hungry spider. Poulenc’s by the kinds of animals you might find in Aesop’s fables—a lion and a pair of roosters, plus, absent from the concert suite, a bear, a cicada, and an ant. Poulenc also introduces human characters: a world-weary woodcutter and a middle-aged man with two widows vying for his attention. After intermission we have a bird, a duck, a cat, and a wolf, each with an instantly recognizable signature tune.

This final work is easily one of the best known in the classical repertoire. Anyone in the audience who is hearing Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for the very first time is fortunate indeed. For the rest of us, this is music we’ve known since childhood and introduced to the children in our own lives, its tunes and traditional narration deeply ingrained in memory. Perhaps we know it too well. But in this concert, Denève takes a fresh approach, dispensing with the narrative text altogether and synchronizing the music with Suzie Templeton’s Peter & the Wolf to tell a richer and more nuanced tale and to demonstrate that music can tell powerful stories without uttering a single word. 

Albert Roussel

The Spider's Feast

Albert Roussel

Born 1869, Tourcoing, France

Died 1937, Royan, France 

A solo flute line suspended above lilting, muted strings floats into the auditorium… It invites you to forget that you’re in a theater and imagine instead the distant corner of a garden at twilight, dominated by an enormous but delicate spider’s web. This is what the first audience of the ballet-pantomime Le Festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast) would have seen in 1913, with Albert Roussel’s exquisite music weaving a magical, gossamer web of its own.

Roussel was a late starter. Like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (of Flight of the Bumblebee fame), his first career was as a naval officer. He began studying music when he was 25; he was nearly 40 before he found recognition as a composer; and The Spider’s Feast, which made his reputation, was premiered when he was 44. After his death in 1937, a tribute article reported that the symphonic suite from this “delectable” ballet was appearing in concert programs “all over the world, from Boston to Moscow,” and it remains one of his most frequently performed works even though it has fallen out of the ballet repertoire.

The Spider’s Feast was Roussel’s first attempt at a ballet. He discovered that ballet music with its “directness of rhythm” and “clarity of melodic line” played to his strengths, and his ear for brilliant and impressionistic instrumental effects was well suited to the subject matter. 

The scenario was full of both dramatic and decorative potential. Devised by Gilbert de Voisins, it took its inspiration from Jean-Henri Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques, a treatise on insects and arachnids presenting decades of rigorous scientific research in lyrical and evocative prose—ideal for a composer who identified as a pantheist and friend of nature. 

Roussel’s perfectly judged score zooms in on the movements and passions of this miniature world. You’ll hear bustling music for the ants, laboring to lift a rose petal; the heavy tread of beetles rolling dung; and a dazed and ditsy butterfly, flitting among the woodwinds until she’s lured to her doom. You’ll hear the fierce and rapacious spider; gangly praying mantises dueling with saw-toothed cutlases in their forelegs; and a motif that might remind you of the stabbing strings in Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho. You’ll “hear” the glittering, iridescent colors of insect carapaces. 

At the center of the story is the short-lived mayfly, emerging from her nymph state to the sound of vague and fragmented music. Minutes later she dances an elegant waltz, only to expire and be mourned with a sighing, somber funeral march. One way or another, death comes to nearly all the creatures in this ballet: the spider triumphantly snares the butterfly, and is in turn killed by a praying mantis, coming to an agonizing end. Those who are left (there are two fat worms, among others) join the mayfly’s procession, and the opening flute solo returns as night falls on the deserted garden.

The ballet can be read allegorically—perhaps, suggested Roussel’s biographer Robert Bernard, as an “ironical portrayal of the appetites, the passions and the destructive folly of mankind.” But as music it has a wit and delicacy that suggests Maurice Ravel, and a sensuousness reminiscent of Claude Debussy. Above all, its magic is to be found in the depth of emotion that Roussel brings to his little universe.

In this performance of the complete ballet score, Grégoire Pont’s whimsical animations take the place of dancers and choreography to lead us through the narrative.

Yvonne Frindle © 2007/2024

Grégoire Pont

Grégoire Pont uses animation to make classical music accessible to a wider audience. He has developed a new performance concept, Cinesthetics, in which he animates live to a musical performance, and he has toured concert halls worldwide collaborating with conductors such as Kazushi Ono, Kent Nagano, Alexandre Bloch, Marko Letonja and François-Xavier Roth.

He has received critical acclaim for his operatic work, namely his productions of Carl Orff’s Der Mond, and of Maurice Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole and L’Enfant et les sortilèges in collaboration with James Bonas for Opéra National de Lyon. He has also animated celebrated productions of Carmen with the Orchestre National de Lille, Abrahamsen’s Snow Queen at Opera National du Rhin (also with staging by Bonas) and Hänsel und Gretel at Cologne Opera. Recent successes include Candide for Welsh National Opera and Emma Bovary for National Ballet of Canada.

Grégoire Pont also illustrates children’s books, notably Les Excalibrius, and he has produced animations for television, educational shorts, and music videos—most recently collaborating with ballet dancer My’Kal Stromile in Catch Me (New Studios). 

Grégoire Pont animations commissioned by the New World Symphony and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

First performance: April 3, 1913 at the Théâtre des Arts, Paris, with Gabriel Grovlez conducting and choreography by Léo Staats

First SLSO performance: December 7, 1928 Emil Oberhoffer conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 13, 1937 Vladimir Golschmann conducting 

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 33 minutes

Francis Poulenc

Les Animaux modèles: Suite

Francis Poulenc

Born 1899, Paris, France

Died 1963, Paris, France

Think of fables and you probably think of Aesop. Unless you’re French, in which case you might think of Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695). There’s plenty of overlap between the two—both include the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for example. The difference lies in the telling: La Fontaine’s volumes are written in the elegant free verse of 17th-century France, and in this performance, Craig Hill’s contemporary translations capture some of that wit and poetry.

By interspersing the music with the fables, we are effectively taking Les Animaux modèles back to its literary inspiration, setting aside the elaborate scenario that the composer himself devised, with its 17th-century rustic framing story and allegorical treatment of its characters. 

We can’t, however, set aside the ballet’s title, which defies translation and carries multiple meanings. The word “models” can suggest theatrical artifice and design. Read another way, “Animals as Models” points to the fables themselves, in which animals hold up a moral example to humans. Francis Poulenc’s goal was to highlight the humanity of animals, taking his lead from La Fontaine, whose animals speak like people.

Les Animaux modèles—completed in 1942 and staged to acclaim in Paris with choreography by Serge Lifar—was Poulenc’s third ballet score, following two from the 1920s, Les Biches and Aubade. All three are much better known in the concert hall, surviving in concert suites that highlight the sophistication of Poulenc’s music. And all three reflect the legacy of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which revitalized ballet at the beginning of the 20th century with ambitious commissions that assembled composers, artists, dancers, and choreographers in a new form of storytelling. 

But Les Animaux modèles is also a product of World War II, the Paris Opera commission arriving in 1940 following the fall of France. It’s unsurprising that Poulenc returned to his favorite verses at a time when he desperately wanted “to find a reason for hope in my country’s destiny.” His idyllic historical setting may have been a kind of escapism; it also appears to have been a disguise for musical “resistance.” The German officers attending the premiere were oblivious to Poulenc’s “indulgence”: giving the trumpets a hammered motif from the patriotic song “Alsace et Lorraine” in The Lion in Love, then echoing the gesture in his fierce, climactic music for the fighting roosters (cockerels were symbols of French valor).


Listen, too, for more innocuous quotations in the tradition of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals: a borrowing from Niccolò Paganini’s famous violin caprice No. 24 in The Two Roosters; the spirit of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas and a suggestion of the can-can in The Middle-Aged Man and His Two Mistresses. Less apparent are quotations from Poulenc’s own music, including sacred works. Les Animaux reveals plenty of Poulenc’s grace, playfulness, and vigor, but it also has quieter, more melancholy moments, as in the music for Death and the Woodcutter, and the seductive passages that open and close the ballet. In Les Animaux we hear, as the critic Claude Rostand characterised it, both the “street urchin” and the “monk.”

Yvonne Frindle © 2024

First performance: The ballet was premiered by the Paris Opera Ballet on August 8, 1942, Roger Désormière conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (3rd doubling cornet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings 

Approximate duration: 31 minutes 

Sergei Prokofiev

Peter and the Wolf

Sergei Prokofiev

Born 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine

Died 1953, Moscow, Russia

If there’s a concert work that has no need of a program note, it’s Peter and the Wolf. In this musical tale the orchestra tells the story, supported by a narrator or, as in this performance, in tandem with a powerful animated film that makes words entirely redundant.

In a now familiar musical strategy, each character is represented by a different instrument with its own theme: the bird by the twittering flute, the duck by the plangent oboe, the cat by the mellifluous clarinet, Peter’s stern grandfather by the bassoon, the dreaded wolf by three horns, and Peter by the strings playing a jaunty march tune. The timpani have a part to play when the hunters turn up, shooting their rifles. 

There was a reason for this approach. Sergei Prokofiev wrote Peter and the Wolf at the invitation of Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Children’s Theatre, who wanted narrative music that would entertain, while also helping children get to know the instruments of the orchestra. Rising to the challenge, Prokofiev achieved his objective in a way that has never been equaled: “the learning is so much fun that the teaching passes unnoticed.” This music may be nearly 90 years old, but it remains the most popular of pieces for teaching children—and adults—about the sound of orchestral instruments.

What then, is its place in a regular concert? In this program, Peter and the Wolf joins music conceived for ballet—itself a wordless dramatic art form—and with animals as the principal characters. And by removing this entertainment from its usual family or educational context, we’re able to hear it as the masterpiece it is.

The toughest critics of all—children—have always been able to recognize this, and Peter and the Wolf was an instant hit at its premiere. This can partly be credited to its musical inventiveness. When Prokofiev returned permanently to Soviet Russia in 1936 he was dreaming of a new kind of music for the new audiences who had begun flocking to concert halls: 

The time is past when music was composed for a circle of aesthetes. Now, the great mass of people in touch with serious music is expectant and enquiring…I would describe the music needed here as “light serious” or “serious light” music; it is by no means easy to find the term which suits it. Above all, it must be tuneful, simply and comprehensively tuneful, and must not be repetitious or stamped with triviality.

Equally crucial to the success of Peter and the Wolf was the story, which Prokofiev wrote himself. With two sons of his own, he knew exactly how to capture the youthful imagination by making Peter a rebellious hero: “Peter paid no attention to his grandfather. Boys like him are not afraid of wolves.”

In her exquisitely detailed stop-motion film, director Suzie Templeton has developed Prokofiev’s narrative and its characters further, giving Peter a contemporary backstory and a world that extends beyond the meadow and its pond, and finding additional humor in his animal friends. 

Yvonne Frindle © 2008/2024

Suzie Templeton

Suzie Templeton is British writer and director specializing in stop-motion animation. Her films include the Academy Award-winning Peter & the Wolf (2006), as well as the Bafta-winning Dog (2001) and Stanley (1999). A graduate of the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, she began her professional career in animation at the age of 28. She was especially attracted to the solitary and slow process of stop-motion animation, and at the RCA she was able to develop her abilities in three-dimensional work and storytelling. In the process she found a distinctive tone and voice, and her films often take a dark and difficult approach rather than pursuing commercial appeal. 

After graduating from the RCA in 2001, she was invited to create an animated sequence for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, to be screened during live orchestral performances. The final production took more than 200 people and over five years to complete, and The Independent praised it for “a level of care, sensitivity and imagination that matches even Prokofiev’s work.” 

First performance: May 2, 1936, by the Moscow Philharmonic 

First SLSO subscription performance: November 10, 1939, Vladimir Golschmann conducting with narrator Charles Galloway; this is the first SLSO performance with Suzie Templeton’s film 

Most recent SLSO subscription performance: May 9, 2021, Stéphane Denève conducting with narrator Alicia Revé Like

Instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 3 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 32 minutes 

Ken Page

Ken Page


Ken Page is the voice of Oogie Boogie in Tim Burton’s cult classic film The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he has recreated the role in sold-out concerts live to film at the Hollywood Bowl and New York’s Barclays Center, as well as in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Glasgow, Dublin, and London. He has also voiced the subsequent video games and Disney Park attractions.

A St. Louis native, his stage career of more than 45 years began in the chorus at The Muny, and for the past six years he has been the announcing–commercial “voice of The Muny.” 

He made his Broadway debut as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in an all-Black revival of Guys and Dolls (winning a Theatre World Award), followed by the Lion in The Wiz, and the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Drama Desk Award and Grammy Award-winning cast album). In 1982 he created the role of Old Deuteronomy in Cats on Broadway, reprising it for the London video cast and winning another Grammy Award. His West End appearances have included Mr. Wonderful, My One and Only, and the original cast of Children of Eden. His film credits include Dreamgirls, Torch Song Trilogy, and All Dogs Go to Heaven

At the Hollywood Bowl he has recreated the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson and performed the role of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid live to film. His one-man show, Page by Page, charting his artistic journey through songs and spoken word, was recorded live and released on CD (LML Music). Recent cabaret and concert performances include the Eugene O’Neil Cabaret Conference and Jazz at Lincoln Center/Mabel Foundation’s tribute to Nat King Cole. In 2022 he appeared in a sold-out, critically acclaimed engagement at New York City’s 54 Below and with the SLSO in A Little Sondheim Music.

His many honors include lifetime achievement awards from the St. Louis Arts Center, Project One–Black Theatre Conference, and the Manhattan Association of Cabarets, and he holds an honorary Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the American Music and Dramatic Academy, Los Angeles.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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