Roar of the tiger;Reviews;Music

9th July 1999 at 01:00
Tom Deveson gets to know the orchestra through the music of the ballet Petrouchka.

There is in it a kind of sonorous magic... by a spell of which, until now, you seem to be the unique inventor." The words of one musical sorcerer (Debussy) to another (Stravinsky) were apt enough at the time to describe the dazzling new aural world of Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has brought out video and audio resources for key stage 2 teachers and their pupils to enable at least some of that enchantment to be reproduced in the classroom.

Instrument Tales is a series of five 15-minute programmes, outlining a composition project in which professional players work with children in the 7-11 age range.

There are always teachers to whom such an undertaking will be entirely new, and while the methods shown are not startlingly original, they are effective. Schools may, however, wish to carefully consider whether, despite the well-intentioned renaming of "The Moor" as "The Soldier", it is appropriate to use old ballet footage featuring a character who looks as if he's auditioningfor the Black and White Minstrel Show.

The series is about the orchestra itself as much as about a piece from its repertoire. Each programme provides not just brief extracts from Petrouchka, illustrating its narrative verve, its melodic freshness and its harmonic and rhythmic innovation, but also an episode in which the different instrumental sections are introduced. It proves a particularly good choice for covering a wide range of timbres and moods.

Players demonstrate specific techniques and then discuss with the children how they can adapt and recreate the scenes themselves. Although the schools on the video have an enviable range of orchestral instruments at their disposal, there is also an imaginative orchestra made of recorders, drums, shakers and other more familiar classroom stand-bys.

There are activities to develop musical invention, such as work in the use of layered rhythms or the development of pentatonic motifs. But the most interesting sections are where the true Stravinskian fingerprints are revealed; bitonality (writing in two simultaneous keys) and polymetric rhythms (using more than one time-signature) are a feature of the revolutionary scores he produced just before the First World War era. There are nice examples of how mirror games - first using simple mime and gesture, then with sounds added, then introducing tuned percussion and keyboard themes played a tone apart - can lead to music which is not mere pastiche, but an enjoyable and original composition.

Similarly, the use of a waltz for "The Dancer" and a march for "The Soldier" is transformed into a section with 34 and 44 music played simultaneously to a constant pulse, with careful attention to tempo. The children become fellow-professionals with the players in their desire to achieve rhythmical complexity in a performance of their work for families and friends.

The teachers' notes emphasise that the techniques used can be adapted to suit a variety of moods or musical idioms. While this is undoubtedly true, the suggested learning activities range over perhaps too wide a ground to be always directly useful for the inexperienced teacher. Questions that range from bowing and fingering techniques to the use of such terms as legato andleggiero might persuade the less confident to stick with what they already know.

But that would be a pity. Back in November 1913, Debussy was telling Stravinsky how his beloved daughter Chouchou had "composed a fantasy on Petrouchka which would make tigers roar". Other girls and boys will take delight in recreating this wonderful music themselves.

Video tape pound;15, audio casettes pound;2, teachers notes pound;3 from BBC Wales Education. Tel: 01222 322838

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