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IT'S MUSIC TO LITTLE EARS : Pacific Symphony's 'Knuckle Busters' Shows Youngsters the Fun Side of Classical Works

November 17, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

In the movie "Amadeus," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart presents one of his compositions to a skeptical Emperor Joseph II. The piece is dazzling, performed with the flashing intensity of a thunderstorm, but the emperor is unimpressed. The music, he yawns with a languid wave of his hankie, has "too many notes."

There are many who share the emperor's view of classical music. After all, torrents of notes delivered by sober-faced musicians in a stuffy concert hall can be pretty intimidating, and bored indifference is a sure-fire defense against things daunting. Given this, you may wonder why the Pacific Symphony Orchestra would bother with a children's concert series. If adults are put off by classical music, why in heaven's name would they want to drag their kids to hear it?

Because symphonic music is not only good for the soul, it's also a heck of a lot of fun, say the folks at the orchestra. And to prove it, the Santa Ana-based orchestra has spent 11 seasons coordinating a family concert series to acquaint children (and their infinitely more closed-minded adult companions) with the value of classical music.

The Mervyn's Musical Mornings concerts, six this season, typically feature a common kid-friendly theme such as holidays or the circus, along with a little humor and some audience participation, mostly through informal dialogue between the listeners and the conductor.

On Saturday, Pacific Symphony takes that a giant step further with "Knuckle Busters," a program of mostly lightning-fast musical selections (or, as assistant conductor Edward Cumming, the series' director, puts it, "They all have lots and lots of notes") strung together in a lighthearted, quasi-musical theater piece performed by L.A.'s Kidd Street Dance Theatre. Intended for ages 4 to 13, "Knuckle Busters" will be presented at 10 and 11:30 a.m. in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Kidd Street artistic director Timothy Kuster created the script for "Knuckle Busters" this summer, with input from Cumming and other members of the orchestra's educational staff. The 30-year-old writer, dancer and composer used as his foundation a previously selected program that includes Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter," Leopold Mozart's "The Toy Symphony" and the opening Allegro of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2. If it plays as well as it reads, the tale will link the music with humor and dance and, in the process, give audiences an easily digestible lesson in basic musical technique.

"Knuckle Busters" is written in a standard musical-theater style. There's an overture (Smetana's Overture to "The Bartered Bride"), followed by a scene, followed by a musical selection, followed by a scene, and so on until the big finish, in this case, the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Guiding the action on stage is Prof. Frederick Fidget (Kuster), an affable, absent-minded fix-it meister whose help is solicited by Herr Konduktor (Cumming) when his orchestra "breaks down."

Aided by his two assistants, Ludwig and Haydwig (5-year-olds Ryan Lepone and Devon Irete), Fidget, whose pidgin German results in some comic lingual foul-ups, helps Herr Konduktor remedy a variety of musical ills.

He teaches him how to use a "schtick" ("Baton, schmaton! It's just a fancy word for schtick!"). After the audience and his assistants point out the problem, he also repairs the muffled sound of a grand piano by removing stuffed animals from under the lid, a bit that segues into a solo performance of the Shostakovich piece by the concert's guest artist, 16-year-old Patty Huang of Cerritos.

The orchestra returns the favor by providing musical backdrops to Fidget's projects. A broken "Schreibmaschine" is tested to Anderson's "The Typewriter" (listeners are asked to help out by flinging their heads with each carriage return, and mechanical toys, danced by 11 Kidd Street performers ages 5 to 13, are fine-tuned to a performance of "The Toy Symphony" aided by a small band of slide whistles, kazoos and drums played by children from the orchestra's Wunderkinder club.

Although he works primarily in Los Angeles, Kuster has collaborated with Orange County groups before. With Hector Armiento, he co-wrote "Un Camino de Fe" ("A Journey of Faith"), a bilingual children's opera based on a story by 12-year-old Sagrario Gil of Santa Ana that is scheduled to tour local schools in May.

"I'm always open to projects dealing with children because they're so open to information; they suck it up like a sponge," said Kuster, who has taught dance and theater to children since he was a sophomore at Cal State Fresno.

"I always encourage kids to take advantage of live concerts and ballets, but not because I think they could all become professional dancers or actors."

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