Notes in front of the children

In just one generation a revolutionary idea has transformed classical concerts for children: that their early experiences of orchestral music should be thoroughly enjoyable. And could it possibly work for adults too?
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The Independent Culture

It hasn't been much of a summer thus far, so I'm sure you will envy me when I tell you I am lounging in a deck chair, in T-shirt and shorts. Beside me is a glass of fine wine. Others around me are likewise clad. Bright Bermuda colours decorate the tanned flesh of contented folk. It may be a lousy summer where you are, but here it is bright and warm - hot, even.

It hasn't been much of a summer thus far, so I'm sure you will envy me when I tell you I am lounging in a deck chair, in T-shirt and shorts. Beside me is a glass of fine wine. Others around me are likewise clad. Bright Bermuda colours decorate the tanned flesh of contented folk. It may be a lousy summer where you are, but here it is bright and warm - hot, even.

You may wonder how a rank-and-file viola player can afford to spend summer in the Caribbean. Well. I am not in the Caribbean, or the Seychelles, Maldives, or indeed anywhere exotic. I am in Poole, Dorset. Indoors. I am sitting in the middle of a symphony orchestra taking part in a concert, reaping the benefit of a revolutionary idea that children, when being introduced to symphonic music, should enjoy themselves. And not only children. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are out there bedecked in similar gear. We are all pretending to be on holiday. Thus my garb, my deck chair and the wine. It is an inspired idea.

I have to say, this radical notion to entertain is a far cry from the bad old days. When I first joined the profession, crocodile lines of school kids would file into a concert hall to be subjected to the more bum-shuffling backwaters of the symphonic repertoire. One conductor, worried that the evening's (adult) concert needed a final polish, decided that the children's concert would present the ideal opportunity. Instead of Peter and the Wolf the kids got Sibelius's Fourth Symphony. "Zis next piece is werry beautiful," announced another maestro. "It iss ze Egmont music. It iss by Beethoven. It iss werry beautiful." After this illuminating introduction, the kids were then treated to the entire incidental music. The expertly-constructed paper aeroplane slowly, lazily drifting down through the orchestra from its launching pad in the balcony during the finale said it all.

At least that conductor gave Egmont a good press. One maestro used to present music with calculated indifference. " Carmen is a silly story about a girl who worked in a cigarette factory and got stabbed by her boyfriend." He would then canter through the suite with all the smouldering passion of a car boot sale.

Egmont must have been a good old stand-by in those days, just the thing for 11-year-olds. My favourite schools concert conductor was famous for his enlightening commentary, and his visits were eagerly awaited by the orchestra. Even to this day his bons mots are recalled in the band room. "In this overture you hear Egmont being executed three times - once at each end and once in the middle." His introductions bore the hallmark of painstaking research: "Mozart died in a pauper's grave." "Beethoven died a very sick man." "Violins are first and second sopranos made of wood." And this, from Bliss's Checkmate ballet. "The Black Bishop took the White Queen from behind..."

Now, as I look out from my creaking, sagging but comfortable canvas vantage point on stage, I witness a packed hall not sitting glumly in fidgety silence, but leaping, dancing, clapping to the strains of Riverdance and Rossini, Britten and the Beatles. The sight makes a showpiece scene from a Busby Berkeley musical look like Sunday afternoon in Workington by comparison.

Then, at the blast of a whistle, in swaggers a 60-strong samba band sounding like a thousand blacksmiths hammering amplified anvils on the Bakerloo line, only more rhythmical. That, plus a large symphony orchestra at full blast backing them (the samba band is supposed to be backing the orchestra, but there is really no contest) gets the audience quite spontaneously swaying, dancing and clapping again.

Finally a demented Chinese goes berserk on a xylophone, faster and faster, right through the sound barrier, until the xylophone eventually explodes with a loud bang and a cloud of coloured smoke. Egmont seems a long, long way away. (In fact so successful has the Chinese become, that he has been appointed to the staff of the orchestra.)

It is all splendid news. Just think that for many this is their first experience of a symphony orchestra. I wonder how many youngsters hearing Sibelius's Fourth Symphony all those years ago came back for more. Certainly there is a constant stream of inquiries about tonight's Shostakovich. The rumour I hear going around - that they all want to get another look at my legs - remains unsubstantiated. They would be disappointed, of course, all limbs having to be draped in solemn black. We could, I suppose, get the xylophone to go up in smoke, and make people leap up and down to the Grieg Piano Concerto. Even more radical than the idea that the audience should enjoy themselves is the idea that the orchestra should enjoy itself. Sporting T-shirts and shorts by management decree is indeed a novelty. And it's not only this one occasion. In the past we have had to dress up as insects, pirates and heaven knows what else.

The checklist for the day before leaving for work has made interesting reading. "Viola, music, evening dress, crutch, eye-patch, blow-up parrot..." For the "insect" concert I borrowed a huge black spider on an elastic string, and hung it from one of my viola pegs. (Shame I forgot to take it off for Mahler Nine).

I am enjoying the conditions under which I am performing so much that I feel inspired. I'm playing a real blinder. I shall ask our management if I can reproduce these performing-enhancing conditions at every concert.

After all, I always want to be at my best. Somehow I don't think they will play ball, and I suspect that my Bermuda shorts, Fat Willy T-shirt, deck chair and wine will not be gracing the platforms of Bristol, Exeter, Vienna Musikverein or Carnegie Hall.

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