Pincus and the Pig

Roll over Prokofiev, here comes Pincus!

The venerable children’s folktale “Peter and the Wolf” has been given an extreme makeover by prize-winning author Maurice Sendak and a group of klezmer musicians. The results are as charming as they are Jewish.

Sendak, known best for “Where the Wild Things Are,” teamed with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra for a rollicking rehash of the story of a small boy who outwits a powerful foe — with a little help from his friends.

The music is pure Prokofiev but the delivery is a klezmer tour de force. As in the original piece, each character is represented by a particular instrument and melody: the clarinet for Pincus, the tuba for his grandfather Zeyde, the piano for the bird and the banjo for the cat. Chozzer the pig — a highly symbolic substitute for the wolf — has two instruments, the tuba and the trombone. The hunters, transformed here into Cossacks, shoot with the rat-a-tat-tat of the drum.

The performance is so natural it feels as if “Peter and the Wolf” had been scored originally for a klezmer band. But Sendak’s rewrite, delivered by the author, shares center stage with the music.

“Did you hear of the boychek Pincus, how he opened wide the gate and hippety-hopped over the sweet warm meadow?” he begins, with a host of “oy veys” and “mazel tovs” peppering the script. A Sendak-illustrated booklet and a sheet of stickers, depicting the major players, is included.

Kids will love the colorful illustrations, although they might have some trouble getting through Sendak’s accented narration. Parents will love the score, not least because it may be their children’s first exposure to both classical and klezmer music. And, when Chozzer the pig is finally vanquished and carted off to the (nonkosher) butcher, the whole family will join in a hardy “mazel tov!”

It’s like having a beloved grandfather read a bedtime story. Once the kids are asleep, the grownups can enjoy the rest of the CD which is fleshed out with interpretations of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” a Brahms waltz and the music of Erik Satie and Gustav Mahler, all done in klezmer style.

Shirim has made a specialty of adapting the classics to a klezmer beat. Its irreverent take on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” (Newport Classic) first brought them to Sendak’s attention. The result of this collaboration has resulted in a splendid children’s piece that may just become a classic in its own right.

“Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale” (Tzadik Records, $16.99).