A Pokemon puts the beat into Beethoven

17th November 2000 at 00:00
It is not often that the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is judged as giving a "rotten" performance, but it was - briefly - at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon for the opening Children's Classic Concert.

The show was a tightly directed journey through the history of classical music, organised by Children's Classic Concerts and the RSNO's animateur, Paul Rissmann.

While the musicians were conducted by their principal conductor, Alexander Lazarev, in strawberry pink shirt sleeves, the audience was skilfully orchestrated by Rissmann in blue jeans as he introduced the 1,700 children and parents to rhythm through the ages.

From Purcell's "Fairy Queen" in 1692 England, the journey proceeded with flashes of blue light and Tardis-like grindings punctuating the spaces between the centuries. A basic but effective device, it carried the children from the 17th century through to the year 3000.

The purpose of their adventure was to focus on rhythm, "because that's what drives music". Hence, the RSNO's shambolic rendering of Purcell: Rissmann asked Lazarev to let the musicians simply play, without rhythm. "Don't they sound rotten?" he said. And indeed they did.

Until Tchaikovsky's time, music usually had four beats to the bar, explained Rissmann, though some only had two. But Tchaikovsky wrote a radical piece that had a beat of five - cue for the RSNO to play his sixth syphony, with Lazarev counting to five on his fingers.

The lessons were clear and far from dull. Quite apart from the excitement of the large symphony orchestra in full flow, Rissmann is young enough to talk the children's language without sounding patronising. So rhythm exercises for the audience, to the words "a Po-ke-m"n I a Po-ke-m"n - that's exactly what Beethoven's fifth symphony sounded like", were positively fun.

The foundations of Children's Classic Concerts - of concept, performance and mass audience - were already in place. What the new partnership with the RSNO and Rissmann has done is sharpen the educational message.

There was a moment at the beginning when this perhaps led to too much talk and too little immersion in the full-scale orchestral sound, but by the time the journey reached its destination with a rousing performance of the Mission Impossible theme, the youngsters had been well and truly transported with delight.

They had heard Purcell, Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Copland, Alberto Ginastera and Lalo Schifrin. They had played rhythm games and joined the orchestra with their own violins, penny whistles, recorders and voices for a full-throated adaptation of "The Happy Wanderer". They may not remember the subtleties, but they will appreciate better the importance of rhythm and have a sense of the evolution of music.

Gillian Macdonald

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