Giant beanstalk raises the roof

20th December 1996 at 00:00
I hate live concerts and stuff," Roald Dahl once said. "I don't think you need to be staring at the orchestra - or pinned to your armchair. And I hate the theatre."

But last Friday at the Royal Albert Hall in London, through the efforts of the Roald Dahl Foundation, set up in 1991 after the author's death, hundreds of children were given a taste of live music and drama guaranteed to dispel such gloomy sentiments.

This was the premi re of Jack and the Beanstalk by the Latvian composer Georgs Pelecis, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, set to Dahl's own text from Revolting Rhymes, and semi-staged with guest appearances from Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow and Danny DeVito.

For this treat, however, the children had to stay awake until the second half. In the first, they needed to get to grips with a more conventional, if accessible, chunk of the classical repertoire, aimed primarily at their parents: an overture by Cherubini, and Schumann's piano concerto. My four-and-a-half year old was unmoved, more interested in his Marmite sandwiches and in asking me why there appeared to be large "mushrooms" hanging from the ceiling.

But within minutes of the second half beginning, up through the mushrooms grows a fantastical beanstalk, belching flame and smoke as it curls slowly upwards, to a cluster of ascending scales in the orchestra.

With narration by Simon Callow, Jack's mother (Joanna Lumley) clomped around the beanstalk and her dishevelled son (Phil Hill), in high heels and rose-spattered pinny, looking as if she had walked straight out of a Quentin Blake illustration. And the voice of the giant (Danny DeVito) boomed electronically from the dome of the Albert Hall.

Pelecis's music is diatonic and minimalist, based around the A major scale, but steeped in melody, colour and rhythmic interest; it has an air of child-like enchantment.

Three hundred children from Gloucester Primary School, in Peckham, south London, were the only ones not to have heard this for the first time. With help from Brendan Beales, animateur and composer, and players from the Royal Philharmonic, these children had been building up to the performance for some weeks.

Singing Beales's own humorous lyrics to some of Pelecis's melodies they had become familiar with much of the music. They had learnt how to play the "magic music" from the piece, on triangle and glockenspiel, and they had improvised and recorded their own "beanstalk-growing music", using Pelecis's ascending scale motif.

Soon, other schools will be able to get their teeth into the Beanstalk, too, with a teachers' pack, Beales's lyrics, and the published score, which lends itself to simpler arrangements.

Donald Sturrock, artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, said: "We want to get children into the concert hall, and we are trying to build up a library of pieces which will have a 'normal' concert existence. We want to enlarge the repertoire of pieces for children so that it doesn't always have to be Peter and the Wolf."

Jack and the Beanstalk is the latest in a series of works for narrator and orchestra commissioned by the foundation and using texts by Dahl. These will help to raise money for the foundation, which, since 1991, has donated more than Pounds 1million in grants for literacy, neurology and haematology.

At the end of their first live concert, the Gloucester Primary children are bright-eyed and thrilled - thrilled with the Albert Hall, with the beanstalk, and with the fact that it was all so familiar.

Broadcast on Classic FM on boxing day at 2.05 pm.

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