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San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival will soon do something it has never done before: Present a movie with live orchestra accompaniment.

The movie is Suzie Templeton’s Peter & the Wolf, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2008. The conductor is David Atherton, the veteran English maestro who is Mainly Mozart’s founding music director. As part of the concert on June 12 at the Balboa Theatre, he’ll conduct composer Sergei Prokofiev’s delightful score about a brave little Russian boy who sets out to capture a wolf.

I recently caught up with Atherton to find out more about this unusual event.

Why did you want to include Peter & the Wolf in the festival’s 24th season?

It came about because we were planning to have screens on either side of the stage for a couple of concerts. I thought that as long as we’re going to all this trouble, let’s try to take it further. I knew about this animated version of Peter & the Wolf. And this seemed like the ideal chance to put it on.

What do you think of the movie?

It has won all kinds of awards, including the Academy Award. When I looked into it, I learned that it actually took five years to make. It uses stop-frame technology – a laborious process that involves positioning each frame piece by piece and mixing in digital technology.

Does the animation fit well with the music?

I was a bit skeptical at first. I thought the pictures would take over and the music would be secondary. But they’ve done this so sensitively that the music and the animation merge together in a way you rarely find. It’s quite a sophisticated piece of art. The attention to visual detail is just staggering.

I have a fondness for Walt Disney’s cartoon version of Peter & the Wolf, which I first saw as a child. Have you seen it?

No, I haven’t. If I haven’t heard enough of Peter & the Wolf once the concert is over, I may look up the Disney version on YouTube.

My understanding is that the version you are showing is quite different from Disney’s.

It’s rather gripping, actually. It takes the children’s story and gives it a dark edge. The Russian soldiers sort of brutalize Peter and his only friends are the little animals he plays with. His grandfather is terribly over-protective of him. The movie only lasts a half hour but it really gives you a Russian flavor. It’s not just a pretty story with a cat being represented by the clarinet and a duck by the oboe. It seems to be set around the time that Prokofiev’s music was written, in the 1930s.

When you conduct the performance, the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra will have about 30 musicians. How will you synchronize the music and the movie?

You’ve got to judge how much flexibility you can give the musicians, given that you have to synchronize with the action on screen. I’ll have a monitor close to the podium where I can follow the movie. I’ll also wear an ear piece. My score will be marked up with cues. You’re trying to give a good musical interpretation yet fit within the strictures. We’ve got only one performance of Peter & the Wolf. So we’ve got only one chance to get it right.

During your career, you’ve conducted everything from Mozart’s masterpieces to extraordinarily complex examples of contemporary music. What do you think of Prokofiev's music for Peter & the Wolf?

Oh, it’s wonderful. So imaginative. The differentiation of the instruments for each of the characters is so clear and so apt. It’s actually brilliant. Young people can associate the animals with particular instruments. But I hate the word “educational” -- people often react badly to it. They think it means boring and stuffy.

So how would you describe Peter & the Wolf?

It’s good family entertainment. And people might learn something as well.

For tickets and more information, click here.

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