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For the Family: Pecking Along with the Firebird

Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of Ionarts-recommended Surprised by Beauty, was at the Kennedy Center for Ionarts, testing the child-friendliness of the NSO's Family concert with the help of his own son.

I thought I was cheating. The National Symphony Orchestra Web site suggested that children be at least seven years old to attend the family concert, The Magic of the Firebird, on Sunday, June 18th. My youngest son is six. I snuck him in anyway. I was making allowances not only for his height – he could easily pass for seven or eight – but also because my children are thoroughly immersed in classical music as a kind of amniotic sound in and ex utero. They instinctively know what bad music is because of their exposure to good music.

As an opposite kind of Gresham’s law, good music actually drives bad music out. My oldest son – then 10 – after being forced to listen to run-of-the mill, low-quality rock in a friend’s father’s car, vented his frustration. Why, I asked, didn’t you like it? “It is irritating to the mind,” he replied. Exactly.

Firebird (Maryleen Schiltkamp)This concert was part of a laudable effort by the National Symphony Orchestra to expose kids to musical quality, thus inoculating them against these inevitable irritations from a lobotomized pop culture. At least they will know that they are irritations. Also, my six-year-old insisted on a concert because his older brother and sister had already been to the Kennedy Center. This was the solution.

Before the conductor appeared, I asked my son if he would like me to read to him the story of the Firebird, neatly provided in a colorful cue sheet for families by the Kennedy Center. He declined. “I’d rather listen to the music,” he said, displaying a preference for the absolute over the descriptive.

Conductor Emil de Cou took the stage, however, and told the story anyway. First, however, he introduced and conducted an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty. This seemed to transfix my son sufficiently that he never removed two fingers thoughtfully poised on his lips. Then came the Sinbad excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with the wonderful crashing waves and wrecked ship.

Finally, De Cou recited the Firebird narrative, illustrating it with orchestral excerpts. He succeeded in his delicate mission because he did not try to be cute, a terminally fatal attitude afflicting condescending adults. Then he and the NSO engagingly played the Firebird Suite (1919 version).

My son was reasonably attentive. He was also attracted by the overhead screen that displayed occasional figure drawings showing what the prince and Firebird were up to, as well as live close-ups of the featured instrumentalists. I could see he was flagging as the Firebird lulled the ogres into a deep sleep, but he was bolt upright when King Kastchei attacked. “When the music got rough, it really got my attention,” he reported.

My son has not asked to listen to more Stravinsky, but I think this was a success nonetheless. It seemed so for the general audience that included many children at least as young if not younger than my son. I saw only one baby removed. In fact, the kids were remarkably well behaved.

Firebird (Heaven and Earth Design)What about the adults, you are wondering? The family behind me was, I hope, not typical. Before that concert began, the mother announced to herself that this was their first time in the concert hall. As she examined the surroundings, she exclaimed to her daughter, “Look, dear, the whole ceiling is made of octagons.” I looked up. They are hexagons.

The father of this family never saw fit to inform the boy behind me that kicking the chair in front of him was gauche. The boy was trying to be quiet in his paper folding exercises but was ceaseless in them as well. Dad saw no problem with this, and only interrupted to read to the boy from the sous-titres on the overhead projector during the performance. Mom also thought that whispering was part of the fun, modulating her voice to follow the volume of the sound. Orchestral tutti provided opportunities for near normal conversational levels.

But this is carping. The NSO is doing the right thing, and doing it well. How about some family concerts for parents on etiquette?

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