Early one morning, David Bowie opened the gate and went out into the big world of orchestral music, and, in a single half-hour recording, bagged a triumph.
Bowie's narration of Peter and the Wolf with the Philadelphia Orchestra released in 1978 hardly represents the first or last handshake over this piece between classical long-hairs and pop stars. In hopes of finding a larger following, classical music often has looked to Prokofiev's 1936 work, inviting pop culture, show business, and political names of the day to do the narration.
Still, the Bowie recording is a marriage in sound cherished by many, and it stands as a curiously successful interpretation.
"What happens when a world-famous maestro teams up with a pop-rock dynamo?" posed promotional material from the time. It was an especially interesting tease, considering Bowie and the orchestra did not exactly team up, because they were never physically in the same room together.
The orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy recorded the music at the Scottish Rite Temple (also known as Town Hall, later demolished) at Broad and Race Streets in 1975 without knowing who the narrator would be. Bowie recorded the text in 1977 in New York.
The narrator was not the establishment choice. "[Ormandy,] quite frankly, didn't know who Bowie was, and when he found out he was a rock star he was a little concerned, to say the least," record producer Jay David Saks told The Inquirer in 1983. Ormandy and Bowie never did meet, but Saks said that in the end, the conductor averred: "The man is very good."
The public thought so, too. Bowie's Peter and the Wolf has made it through format transitions across the decades - from translucent green vinyl to 8-track, CD, and now, of course, mp3. (The original release included a flip side with Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra without narration.)
It has not made the migration on star power alone. Relaxed and kindly, Bowie's voice is utterly unlike those of RCA's first few candidates for narrator. Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, and Arthur Rubenstein turned the project down before Bowie was approached.
Like the artist himself, Bowie's voice takes on not one character but many. He quavers a sly purr as the cat; he slips into an angry persona as Peter's grandfather. He takes on a suddenly feminine guise as the little (male) bird. Even in 1978 and even in a children's recording, Bowie was imploring his listeners to think differently about the power of ambiguity.
"God, he was charming and sweet," Saks told me last week. "Everything about his image that would lead you to gather at the time, about him being strange or difficult, none of that was true at all. He was literate, charming, intelligent, and couldn't have been nicer. Those few hours [of recording] are a memory I will keep."
Saks says Bowie was "just eager to do this, and do this right, and he told me he wanted to do it for his son, who was 5 or 6 at the time."
So many actors and musicians have recorded Peter and the Wolf it seems something of a compulsory rite of passage. But what does it bring the piece, or the career, to record or perform yet another Peter and the Wolf today? Through this one work, the genre always seems to be looking to borrow a little cool from the star association, while the star seeks class or an aura of credibility.
Or authority. Eleanor Roosevelt recorded it (1950) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra - and "declaims the text as if she were addressing the Daughters of the American Revolution," said one critic. (Dressing down is more like it). Boris Karloff did it (1957) with the Vienna State Opera orchestra; no monsters here, just warm reserve. Leonard Bernstein (1960) let off glamour and youth, not to mention erudition.
To declare the version you grew up listening to (and on what format) is to mark your generation, unless you came of age, as I did, with a scratchy souvenir of another era hanging on. I'm too young to have known, as contemporary, Sterling Holloway's Pooh-puff of a voice in the 1940s Disney version, but there it is, inexplicably present in my ear.
What's remarkable about Bowie is that he represented in 1978 all that was new, much as he did still when he died last week. Who could claim the same place today? Who has enough mass appeal today to cut across genre divides, to deliver pop fans to classical while perhaps showing classical fans that speaking in colloquial tones carries power, too?
Does today's ambassador to classical come from London, New York, or Compton? Does she wear a hijab, or hail from a particular political territory? It's no secret that every cultural choice today gets dissected, overthought, pummeled, and cheered in the superficial light of social media. Cultural appropriation? For classical music, borrowing from another cultural realm is a tried and true route to rejuvenation.
More important, though a new generation of young Americans may have the world at their fingertips, never have they needed more a smart guide who knows, as Bowie did, that the best places to go for a productive day of culture-hunting are often somewhat out of the way.