With the year drawing to a close and final exams approaching, the UBC Symphony Orchestra held their second performance of the season on the evening of December 2. While the orchestra’s performance was nearly pitch perfect, guest narrator Santa Ono struggled to find his rhythm.
Although the auditorium was emptier than usual, you wouldn’t have known from the thunderous applause that the orchestra, under the guidance of Graduate Assistant Conductor Jaelem Bhate, received for its performance of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies I & III.
The melancholic and ambient French classic was followed by the Canadian premier of Francis Poulenc’s Suite from Les Animaux modèles. After giving the audience some background about the French Resistance and pastoral-inspired sound of the piece, Conductor Jonathan Girard led the orchestra through the riveting six-part ballet score drawn from the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine.
Contemporary critics have noted the influences that Satie and Igor Stravinsky had upon Poulenc. The Les Animaux modèles thus acted as unifying bridge between the first and final pieces of the evening, with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite concluding the evening with passionate gusto.
But the pièce de résistance of the evening should have been Santa Ono’s narration of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Having studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, and still finding time to sing and play his cello, Ono is no stranger to the stage. But while Ono presented himself well, decked out in his signature bow tie and a blazing red dinner jacket (and matching can of Coke), his narration proved to be far less dazzling than his wardrobe.
Ono’s storytelling ended up being jarring rather than soothing and stilted rather than smooth. Instead of captivating the audience with a calming tenor and confident timing, Ono’s constant furtive glances at the conductor were distracting and his pitch was inconsistently sonorous and monotone, as if he couldn’t decide whether to break into song or commentate.
Those of us who grew up with Disney’s cartoon rendition of Peter and the Wolf were more than a touch disappointed.
Ono’s appearance as narrator raises questions as to the role that university administrators should play in on-campus cultural events. Ono has been highly successful in aligning his personal brand image with that of the university. Inviting him might have helped draw more students to the show, but certainly didn’t give them the optimal orchestra experience. He does a lot of things well, but narrating isn’t one of them.