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Let's listen to a symphony;Music

Christopher Lambton reviews the latest Children's Classic Concerts.

Half way through their fifth anniversary season, Children's Classic Concerts have a lot to be proud of. Who would have thought that afternoon concerts of classical music would prove a magnet for thousands of children?

Whether or not you are a parent, there is something heartening about seeing the foyers of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall humming with small people eager to hear a full symphony orchestra.

My assistant critic, five-year-old Alexander, considers these concerts the high point of the year. Orchestral managers could take heart that the central tenets of the Children's Classic Concerts' philosophy are precisely those traditions - white tie, tails, a conductor who spends most of his time with his back to the audience - that market researchers keep telling them to ditch in favour of something more "accessible".

But such success does not mean that either the concept or the execution is immune from criticism.

The format is straightforward enough. Each concert lasts just one hour and contains up to 15 short pieces of music played by a large symphony orchestra. The only differences between this and an adult concert are the length of the pieces and addition of a presenter who guides the audience through the music, although on occasion the roles of conductor and presenter are combined.

One of the most frequent presenters is Atarah Ben-Tovim, an extrovert flautist with a loud voice, long golden hair, and a taste in long robes covered in glitter.

Atarah knows about the orchestra, the music it plays, and the composers. She dispenses this knowledge with great enthusiasm though not much subtlety.

She tells us that the French horn is a left-handed instrument but does not explain why this is significant. If stuck for something to say, she declares in an awe-struck whisper that "this piece of music was written over 100200300 years ago", as though that in itself is interesting. Knowledge is no substitute for preparation.

At November's concert in Edinburgh, Atarah introduced Elgar's Nimrod from the Enigma Variations as an important piece of national music, which it isn't, unless you include everything Elgar wrote in that definition. Certainly it is a fine piece, but her exhortations to be quiet and listen were noisier than the rest of the audience put together.

That said, Atarah has produced some great moments: in an earlier season she had the entire Usher Hall audience playing a D, a mesmeric sound that was carefully blended into the orchestra's performance of the Hungarian Dance from Swan Lake. In November, she had us burst paper bags for the cannons in the 1812 Overture, an inspired piece of orchestration.

The trouble is that Atarah's musical games seem to have taken over the rest of the concerts, even those she does not present.

Concerts which were initially designed to allow children to hear orchestral music in a realistic concert setting have been hijacked by the sort of orchestral workshop activities that many children already encounter at school. Irrelevant lighting effects have crept in, presumably to try and ape the glitz of television.

At last Sunday's concert in Glasgow, I felt sorry for Playschool presenter Floella Benjamin, whose lack of confidence in the music prevented her from controlling the almost incessant rattling of jingle bells brought along by the audience. Her great charm could not give life to a leaden script. Even the music is no longer as good.

The organisers seem terrified of anything long enough to challenge the reputed attention span of children, so some of the extracts are brutally truncated. On Sunday, Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain would have been better renamed Dark Moment on a Hill.

None of this would matter much if I didn't feel that the Children's Classic Concerts have a role in life more important than providing amusement for kids on a dark weekend, something which they do with great success.

If they hope to sow the seeds of a new generation of concert patrons, there needs to be some visible connection with the adult world of music making. But they are now so unlike real concerts that parents are visibly bored.

The emphasis on the trivial has downgraded the music into little more than a noise that keeps the little ones quiet or at least drowns them out. I've got nothing against people having fun but the listening seems to have been shoved to one side.

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