Move over, Peter, and your little wolf too. Pecos Bill is ridin into town, and hes bringing his own orchestra.
This Saturday, the University of Puget Sound is holding its annual Jacobsen Jr. kids classical concert, and instead of the old chestnut from Russia (Sergei Prokofievs Peter and the Wolf), the programs heading West with American composer Aaron Copland, cowboy songs and a new narrated piece by UPS piano chairman Duane Hulbert called Pecos Bill: A Tall Tale of the Wild West.
We were driving to Wyoming last summer, and listening to everything from Copland to Bernstein to Gene Autry on CD, said Hulbert. Then I would look out of our little cabin on the ranch, and see these horses and cows. It was beautiful, and I was a bit inspired.
A bit, indeed. Hulbert, a Grammy-nominated concert pianist who has co-written many childrens musicals with his wife Judy Carlson Hulbert, spent his Wyoming artist residency writing a musical tale for narrator and piano based on the 1940s cartoon cowboy. In the fall he began adding instruments one by one, and now its a full-blown chamber piece, 20 minutes long, in which Pecos Bills astounding adventures through canyon and desert are illustrated musically by different instruments and themes just like in Peter and the Wolf, only transposed to the Wild West.
Played by cowboy-hatted students and Hulbert himself on piano, and directed by UPS Gerard Morris, Pecos Bill manages a colorful palette of sounds with just seven strings, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and percussion. Theres Bills own theme, jaunty and syncopated in the strings, a lumbering bass drum and horse-hoof claves, a cat theme in the clarinet, rattlesnake maracas, hissing cymbals, numerous sound effects on slide whistles and ratchets, and a piano that does everything from honky-tonk to Liszt-inspired tornadoes.
A petting zoo will follow the concert, so kids can try out the instruments they hear.
Cowboy music, Western music, is almost pentatonic, Hulbert says, referring to the five-tone scale you can get by playing all the black notes on the piano. There are a lot of open fifths. I was drawn to that kind of music: Its an older kind of sound, but still very appealing.
Its true: While Pecos Bill may be Peter transposed to an American hero, hes not exactly sounding contemporary. To kids reared on the high-voltage, repetitive soundtracks of Super Mario and Halo, itll definitely sound old-fashioned. But thats not a bad thing, says Hulbert, whos pairing the piece with Coplands two-piano suite Billy the Kid, Rossinis William Tell Overture (aka The Lone Ranger) and a violin solo by 20th-century African American composer William Grant Still, plus Roy Rogers Happy Trails.
This is a bygone era, says Hulbert, wholl get his orchestra to play musical examples of each theme before the piece so kids can listen for them. But one of the things about educating kids is that they shouldnt just sit there and be entertained. They should do some listening work. These days maybe theyre expecting (passive) visual entertainment, but this is aural and imaginative, its painting with sound.
What also makes it fun is that Pecos Bill is the hero every kid would like to be: He grows up with coyotes and greets strangers with Grrr! He jumps rope with rattlesnakes and uses them to lasso tornadoes. He wrestles porcupines and has a mountain lion for a pet, and of course he ends up being the best dang cowboy in the whole west of the U.S. of A.
Dressed in full cowboy regalia, student actor Alex Adams does a fine job of recounting Bills adventures in a Texas twang with just enough seriousness for the kids and just enough sly humor for the adults.
Careful adult listeners will also pick up Hulberts musical jokes: the clarinet howl from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, an upbeat Deep River, Home on the Range, the Wedding March from Wagners Lohengrin and (of course) a dressed-up version of The Yellow Rose of Texas. All this comes in a piece that manages its simple melodies and harmonies with a transparent texture and balanced pace.
The storyline is written by Carlson Hulbert, a childrens author, playwright and local theater director whose play version of the story appeared at the Proctor Arts Festival two years ago.
Where next for Pecos Bill? Hulbert says they might bring it to this years Proctor Festival or even expand it for a full orchestra, but for now he and Carlson Hulbert are planning an adult musical based on a Tolstoy story that theyll begin in May.
And after this Saturday, the classical repertoire now has a fresh take on a cheeky, confident hero with musical adventures one that American kids can claim as their own.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568