Classical: When Barbie met Beethoven

Want to introduce your child to the classics? Then maybe the queen of the toy store can help. Lynne Walker reports
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The Independent Culture

She's a successful businesswoman, a member of a rock band and a women's world cup soccer player. As if that wasn't enough, the anatomically improbable, plastic queen of the toy stores has a new mission. She's out to introduce classical music to a young generation of fans, aged three upwards, in a touring concert programme called Barbie at the Symphony.

I'm sitting amid a sea of pink in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, wishing that I too had some fuschia pop-up wings. A lot of children, mainly little girls, are chattering excitedly about their idol, probably unaware that they are there to "learn about classical music" the Barbie way. By the way, that's 15 a head (no concessions) for an hour's music.

On to the platform comes the ponytailed American conductor Arnie Roth, who has put together the Barbie at the Symphony compilation. The orchestra, led by a reassuringly un-Barbie-like female, begins rather sleepily with part of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. The ballet about Clara's Christmas encounter with a nutcracker doll formed the basis of the first computer-animated film in the "Princess" series, launched by the American toy giant and Barbie creators, Mattel, in 2000.

"It was the perfect choice," explains Roth when I speak to him before the concert, "since the music is both well known and associated with a familiar plot. In adapting it to make Barbie play the lead, we remained pretty true to the classic story." Not all the films have been so faithful, however. Barbie of Swan Lake has Barbie/Odette as the daughter of a baker led to the woods by a unicorn where she is trapped and turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer.

The ballet sequences from these films, along with Barbie as Rapunzel, Barbie in the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper and Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, are well animated, computerised and mapped from the movements of principals from New York City Ballet. As far as the tutu and pointe shoes brigade go, it's all very polished. But as a live symphonic concert in terms of engaging a young audience and making classical music and the instruments that play it exciting and irresistible it is lacklustre and without focus. As 10-year-old Micaela and her eight-year-old sister Cosima put it to me, the afternoon achieves that rare combination of being both "cheesy" and "weird".

Barbie herself strings together the various scenes in a series of specially animated sequences. These, however, are disjointed and abrupt, as if fitting the concert presentation into her busy schedule was one animated move too many. In the first link, she's about to address a Geneva conference on climate change but manages a word of welcome before handing us over to "Maestro" Roth. A few minutes later she's painting in a garden in Monet's garden at Giverny, then fitting in another quick gobbet from a figure-skating competition in Montreal, and shortly afterwards squeezing us in before appearing with her band in Tokyo. All the while Roth interacts with her in a stilted kind of way, sounding, perhaps not surprisingly, unanimated.

Even the "Princess" films that aren't based on classical ballet borrow from classical music: parts of Dvorak's New World Symphony in Rapunzel, Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony in Twelve Dancing Princesses and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony in Pegasus. But adapted to synchronise with the animated action, tempi slowed, a bar missed here and there, and, worst of all, with additional music by Roth randomly inserted, it just sounds wrong. And the three anodyne songs from The Prince and the Pauper have nothing whatsoever to do with the classical canon.

While the films use the London Symphony Orchestra, the live concerts around the UK feature orchestras who sound as if they've seen neither the music nor each other before. Not only under the leadership of five-year-old Melanie, Roth's "new special friend", who's been encouraged to "keep a tempo" while brandishing a baton with a star on the end, did the orchestra sound scrappy.

Roth does his best in a sanitised sort of way when not kowtowing to Barbie, that is reading the bland introductions to the music and a snippet about the life of each composer from an autocue. Maps showing their birthplaces along with pictures flash up on the screen a coloured painting for Mendelssohn, but mere black and white images for Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

After the interval, Roth briefly introduces the sections of the orchestra. There's little chance to identify the sound each instrument makes in just a snatch of The Nutcracker, however. More illustrations appear overhead but unfortunately the image of the oboe is of an oboe d'amore, while the pictures of percussion, piano and harp pop up in a different order from that read out by Roth.

For concert promoters, this pre-packaged pops concert from Mattel might seem like a smart way to attract a young audience into the concert hall. But I'd stick to the DVD of the Barbie films, each of which has a behind-the-scenes section offering a glimpse of life in the arts. One such clip, Playing with Passion, is a short documentary about Nicola Benedetti, the expressive violin soloist in Swan Lake. These educational strands demonstrate, says Roth, the "commitment, focus and also empowerment" of girls. It's ironic, then, that those very elements along with the passion are missing from Barbie at the Symphony.