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Classical, Yes; Stuffy, No Way

Introducing kids to the glories of the the concert hall isn't hard. Southland orchestras line up special programs.

October 15, 1998|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Children and music are a natural and happy mix, although that may seem a doubtful assertion to any harried parent who has had to exit a concert early with an audibly dissatisfied child. But performing and presenting organizations throughout Southern California have programs that can help bridge that awful gap between Billy and Beethoven and stimulate a relish for the arts that today so many parents want in their children's lives.

Forget any dim memories you may have of "children's concerts," however. The repertory now is noticeably less bland, and surrounding it is a whole panoply of computer and video enhancements, crafts and activities. Talk to the people who run these programs--many of which are free or presented at discounted rates--and you know you are in the '90s. Words like "interactivity" and "hands-on" leap out.

"Our Musical Circus program gives children a chance to touch and make sounds on the instruments of the orchestra," said Geoffrey Fontaine, executive director of the Pasadena Symphony. "Then they see some of our musicians and one of our soloists talking about themselves and their instruments and actually playing. It makes the kids feel more connected to the orchestra and the music."

"The unique thing with Pacific Symphony is that there is a new level of interaction, not only during the performance but before and afterward," said assistant conductor Elizabeth Stoyanovich, who leads her orchestra's Mervyn's Musical Mornings programs. These include a musical treasure hunt through the lobbies of the Orange County Performing Arts Center featuring an instrument "petting zoo," a computer center and dance and theater activities.

Such user-friendly enticements can raise entertainment-vs.-art questions.

"I've talked to parents and kids after some of these concerts, and they never talk about the music; they talk about the costumes or the computers or something else," said Sue Knussen, education director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has been doing children's concerts for more than 70 years. "But we have to face the fact that kids are visually biased. This year we're hoping to have video enhancements, screens around the hall on which we can show close-ups of the instruments while they are being played."

Actor John De Lancie--Q on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and son of the Philadelphia Orchestra's celebrated former principal oboist--will host the Philharmonic's Toyota Symphonies for Youth this season. Not all of the expanded before-concert activities may be ready for the opening performance, but eventually they will include a four-panel "music wall" showing instruments and the basic physics of music, story-telling, crafts and strolling musicians.

In San Diego, the recently revived symphony is combining holiday themes with orchestral performances for its children's programs--the first of which is a Halloween show that includes musicians in costumes and a haunted house. '

Despite such extras, the orchestras still push listening as the prime concern. "The orchestra is obviously the main tool, and our players are the stars," Stoyanovich said.

Another strategy involves the outdoors. And although Symphony in the Glen offers special activities for children--coloring books, puzzles and introductions to conducting-- before its free concerts, it relies on natural magic rather than technological glitz to create a kid-friendly ambience: The concerts are outdoors on the grass at Griffith Park, where children can stretch and play while listening.

"I believe that the park environment--with other kids, parents, a picnic--increases the likelihood that it will all, somehow, enter the children's memory banks. I suppose that's because the whole experience is so visceral," Symphony in the Glen music director Arthur Rubinstein said.

The final concert of the current season features Symphony in the Glen's third annual "Peter and the Wolf," with "Rush Hour" actress Elizabeth Pena handling the narration. Although this prototypic kids' piece has been a regular for Symphony in the Glen, Rubinstein said he feels no obligation to program "children's music"--indeed, the opening concert this season listed Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

And that brings up another challenge for programmers: the fine line between "dumbing-down" and eluding children's interest and attention altogether.

"One difference I've seen between the Pacific Symphony and other major orchestras is that we plan the whole season of family concerts. We don't just put on a refurbished portion of a regular adult program and hope the kids will swallow it," said Stoyanovich, who has two children. "It's not dumbing-down; it's making it accessible and creating something just for children." Her programs do include occasional tunes from hit Disney films but also generous portions of major works by Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bartok, among others.

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