"Something terrible has happened: A madman has moved into our house."
The speaker is a boy in a 19th-century boarding house, narrator of "Beethoven Lives Upstairs," the best-selling audio recording from "Classical Kids," based on the composer's life and work. That suspenseful opening hook is typical of the way the award-winning series, from Canada's The Children's Group, has successfully sparked young people's interest in classical music since 1988.
Created by pianist and piano instructor Susan Hammond, Classical Kids' winning formula, aimed at ages 5 to 12, is a combination of music, some history of time and place, and audio dramas revolving around Handel, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi.
The series has won multiple Parents' Choice, Juno, American Library Assn. and other parent, educational and entertainment awards; it has also spawned regularly touring live concert versions of the recordings and an Emmy-winning video version of the "Beethoven" release.
The newest release, "Mozart's Magnificent Voyage," is a time-traveling trek back to Mozart's childhood, and in Hammond's next project, the work of several composers will be wrapped up in medieval mythology.
"It's going to have to do with a young queen who falls mysteriously ill, a search for a unicorn and Merlin and Arthur along the way," Hammond said. "At Merlin's cave, instruments of the future will glow on the walls and begin to play, and over ancient melodies, I'm going to overlay Bach and Beethoven and blow it out into the future.
"Oh, I am so excited about this one," she enthused.
Ten years don't seem to have diminished Hammond's passion for what she sees as her mission: to bring children and classical music together for the pleasure of the experience, without any sense of "because it's good for you."
She is alarmed about years of cutbacks in school arts programs, about the challenges of niche marketing in the wake of such an entertainment juggernaut as Disney, and she deplores "the moving down of teen culture to 5-year-old emulators. I don't know why parents buy into this," she said wryly.
Hammond views with optimism, however, the attention given recent studies showing how music and the arts can positively affect a child's development.
"Science is kind of proving what everybody who works in the arts knows at core," she said. "In a way, I regret they're not saying, 'Listen to [classical music] for its own sake,' but saying instead, 'Listen to it to make you smarter.' But that's OK."
She even finds something positive in the proliferation of classical "mood" compilations "to fit our lifestyle, like 'Bathtime With Bach' for children, or "Wine and Romance.' It's as if they're taking classical music and saying, 'Yes, it can be relevant in modern life.' Maybe that's not a bad thing, given the fact that it seems so difficult to draw people into symphony halls."
Words, however, are as important as music in the recordings. Sophisticated enough for adults, the stories--mostly written by Hammond's collaborator, Douglas Cowling--approach children as intelligent listeners.
"The scripts are fairly complicated, using language that's a little higher than you often hear on television," Hammond said, "where if you were to shut your eyes and listen to the simplicity of the scripts and the canned sound effects, you realize what a quick, disposable world we live in. You enjoy the experience and, wham, it's gone."
Another signature component in the stories is a coming together of older and younger generations.
"That's my favorite letter, one that always comes to us in many forms," Hammond noted, "saying something like, 'This got us from Los Angeles to Boston in one piece as a family.'
"They're built to be heard on different levels. I think children are very profound people and that adults have a childlike side to them. I mean, we're all people, and how many meeting points are there?"
* "Classical Kids," the Children's Group: "Beethoven Lives Upstairs," "Mr. Bach Comes to Call," "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery," "Tchaikovsky Discovers America," "Daydreams and Lullabies," "Hallelujah Handel," "Mozart's Magnificent Voyage." Individual CD: $15.97; boxed CD sets, $35.97. (800) 757-8372.http:www.childrensgroup.com