Arts: Who's been sitting in my concert hall?
Saturday 20 December 1997
The Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik obviously had a lot of fun writing his children's pantomime Goldilocks and the Three Bears. More fun, perhaps, than the children in Thursday night's audience at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, few of whom, presumably, would have recognised the clever parodies in his witty and sophisticated score: Chabrier's Joyeuse marche, Richard Strauss's Don Juan, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms, and lots more.
In fact, it was hard to decide whom the piece was written for. It was commissioned on behalf of the Roald Dahl Foundation and based on a "Revolting Rhyme" by Dahl, adapted as some sort of a stage piece by Donald Sturrock. A rather fragile clue in the poem was seized on to support a court-room drama: Baby Bear is accused of the attempted murder of Goldilocks, after the episode in which she eats the porridge and breaks the chairs. The text is written in cod verse in the manner of a Christmas pantomime ("Maestro, if you please" is the cue for the orchestra to play) and the cast are all animals: three very credible bears, a lion judge and a crew of suffocatingly coy rabbits.
The director (Karen Howard) and designer (Caroline Grebbell) had organised an acting area behind the orchestra: actors mimed extracts from the "plot" and spoke their preposterous lines through body-mikes that made them sound like heavenly voices.
The children enjoyed, up to a point, the animal costumes, the corny jokes and the invitations to participate - at one point the conductor HK Gruber, that great old trouper (former Vienna choirboy turned baritone chansonnier and composer of Frankenstein!!!), pretended to go to steep, and we all had to shout "Wake up, Gruber" - but there were long stretches when nothing happened on stage and everyone waited for the music to finish. This was in spite of the fact that the musical numbers often had titles implying movement: "Goldilocks' sweet dance", "Criminal bears' dance", "Smelly melodrama". Perhaps Goldilocks herself (Sophie Dahl, Roald Dahl's generously proportioned fashion-model granddaughter, here making her stage debut) might have been better cast as a dancer, and the whole thing done as a quasi-ballet.
Nevertheless, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, whose record is honourable in commissioning new works, delivered Schwertsik's Toytown marches and bustling dances with point and flourish. A modernist who has renounced the avant-garde, he shadows Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Bartok in an eclectic style full of avuncular humour. When Goldilocks got into bed in her smelly socks, the contrabassoon blew raspberries and the strings played whistly harmonics - phew! - while the middle-class gentility of Mother Bear was pictured by a string quartet (which was, however, almost inaudible in the wretched acoustic of the GRCH).
The programme-editor was inspired to print photographs of all the protagonists as children. Gruber in a sailor suit! Even Aleksander Madzar, the very young soloist in Weber's Konzertstuck, was represented by a picture taken just a few years ago. His playing was a bit old-mannish, however; classical, restrained, straightforward. If this was a concert for children, somehow they were missing from the music itself.
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