Orchestral titbits with youth appeal
When the conductor Alexander Lazarev mounts the podium in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall tomorrow, it will mark the beginning of a new era for Children's Classic Concerts. For the first time since its inauguration in 1994, the core season of nine performances will be provided by an exclusive partnership with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Until now, Children's Classic Concerts has simply hired orchestras as required across Scotland to give its popular weekend concerts of orchestral titbits aimed at families with young children.
In all, five RSNO concerts in Glasgow, three in Edinburgh and one in Aberdeen are planned. However, Teri Hodgins, joint general manager of Children's Classic Concerts, says that the organisation will continue to work outside the partnership too.
The partnership offers considerable cost savings. The musicians will play within contract hours, avoiding overtime, and the orchestra will be able to plan children's and adult concerts on the same days so as to minimise concert hall hire charges.
Tomorrow's afternoon concert for children is followed by an evening performance which forms part of the RSNO's main winter season. Even some of the music is shared between the two concerts, in this case the "Allegretto" from Shostakovich's fifth symphony.
Most of the RSNO concerts are to be presented by Paul Rissmann, the orchestra's charismatic education officer and animateur. Chris Jarvis, a children's television presenter, will introduce one concert in March, and other conductors for the season include Garry Walker, the RSNO's associate conductor, and Christopher Bell, who takes on the roles of both presenter and conductor.
The partnership brings a significant change in musical policy. Children's Classic Concerts was run by Louise Naftalin and its artistic director Atarah Ben-Tovim. since its foundation, but earlier this year they left the Glasgow operation in order to collaborate on a new series of concerts a the Barbican in London, using the name of Children's Classic Concerts under licence. The gap in artistic direction has been filled by Rissmann.
His approach to children's concerts is tougher and more focussed than the relaxed series of orchestral hits favoured by Ben-Tovim. "I believe very strongly," he says, "that these concerts should be precisely tailored for the children. For many of them the idea of listening to classical music is about as appealing as eating a plate of Brussels sprouts. I have spent hours and hours going through the scores, editing and splicing to make it more accessible."
Rissmann's policy has been to create strong themes for each concert to draw children's attention. The first is the science-fiction fantasy of time travel, exploring how music has progressed over the past three centuries or so, with changes in rhythm and orchestral texture demonstrated by music as early as Purcell to 20th century giants Shostakovich, Copland and Ginastera.
The next concert, "Toy Stories", introduces the idea of musical storytelling. This is followed by "Kaleidoscope" in January, then "Splash" and a detailed look at the planets in "Blast Off" in March.
Teri Hodgins recognises the need to "aim high and tough with the children" and appreciates the spirit of collaboration in which the concerts have been devised with Rissmann. He has programmed each concert to include at least one piece by a living composer and at least one that the children already know.
"If they hear a well-known song or television theme tune played by the orchestra and alongside it some of the vast range of orchestral music, it sends a very strong message."
He plans to refine the somewhat random use of audience participation encouraged by Ben-Tovim, and encourage instrumentalists to prepare in advance by accessing the Children's Classic Concerts website.
He also hopes to break the tradition of playing in white tie and tails, a uniform that he reckons is inappropriate for a 21st century orchestra and certainly for afternoon children's concerts.