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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Peter and the Wolf at Lake Wobegon

PETERING The Tomten and the Fox: New Classical Music for Children • Mississippi Gulf Coast Suite, Journey for Two Violins, String Quartet for Pet Rabbit, The Tomten and the Fox • Norene Smith, Mark Petering, Charles Sena (narrators); Stephen Colburn, cond; Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra New Music Ensemble • Zebrina Records ZR1075 (50:30)

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M.Petering , The Tomten and the Fox et al.,
N.Smith, M.Petering et al.,
S.Colburn, Milwaukee CO, New Music Ensemble
Zebrina Records ZR1075

This is a CD for children with music composed for children and extensive narration presumably tailored to a child’s preferences. Lacking children of my own, or accessible nieces and nephews for testing purposes, I tried to listen to this CD with child’s ears of my own. (Incidentally, a childlike state of mind doesn’t present particular difficulties to me.) Not all children are the same, however, and consequently not every child will react to this disc in similar ways as did my six year old alter ego. I happen to have been a child that could not stand condescension and the particular tone of fawning excitement that adults would put on to excite us—and I still can’t abide it.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The title work—The Tomten and the Fox—is a perfectly amiable setting of the Astrid Lindgren story for chamber orchestra and narrator. Oozing wholesomeness, it’s a lightweight version of Peter and the Wolf fresh from Lake Wobegon. Not as good as the original so obviously modeled on, but good enough to recommend as a sequel when the youngster has heard and seen enough of Prokofiev’s duck being swallowed.

Unfortunately that remains the gently elevated highpoint on this disc. As narrator Norene Smith and composer Mark Petering (b. 1972) proceed with the painfully obviously scripted dialog, the cringe factor increases steadily. They introduce and recap “Five Animals” represented by Woodwind quintet, among other items, and after every musically misrepresented beast (cub, fawn, rabbit, skunk, wolf) Smith exclaims in breathless sycophantism how that was totally like a rabbit, or a fawn, or—unintentionally best of all—“this was skunk!”. If you want to teach your child the meaning of servile flattery, you’ve got a winner at hand. The music, utterly competent throughout, lacks variety and sometimes misses the intended characterization entirely. What kind of squirrel is represented by a bassoon, anyway?

The CD ends on a note addressing the children listeners of how Norene and Mark hope that they will make music a part of their every day life. Neat thought, but if instructions to that extend become necessary, perhaps the music simply wasn’t spellbinding enough? Any smart kid and sympathetic teacher or parent will have more from an hour with Messiaen (when it comes to ‘readying’ the youngsters for “new classical music”) or, more conventionally, an audio biography of Haydn or Beethoven. In the end, what you have here is a CD full of good intentions and modest music, the result being the very lowest common denominator of a Garrison Keillor show (the Midwestern niceness) and Peter and the Wolf.

(Marketed directly, here.)