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Facing the Music

As Lady Storytell, Carole Cooney Brings Composers to Life

February 22, 2001|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lady Storytell was looking very "buh ROHK," as she put it. That's baroque as in fancy ornamentation, like the pearls she hot-glued to her shoes and to the wig coiling out of her starched lace headdress.

And Baroque as in Bach.

Her costume defined the word for students at Adelaide Price Elementary in Anaheim recently, while her voice and drama skills outlined the life and times of Johann Sebastian Bach.

By the time the half-hour program was over, students had "played" the pipe organ, "conducted" music, learned the difference between a piano and a harpsichord and laughed at anecdotes of the short-tempered German composer's calling an inept musician a nanny goat and flinging his wig to the ground in frustration.

Through her word pictures--accompanied by bites of recorded and live music--students followed the prolific Bach from orphaned youth to well-known organist and court musician, and from jailbird (he wrote 46 choral pieces in his one-month stint) to father (20 children).

As Lady Storytell, Carole Cooney, 63--longtime drama teacher, sometime actress, director and singer--has found her niche.

"This feeds my soul," Cooney said of her role in Class Act, officially the Frieda Belinfante Class Act Program sponsored by Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and presented by the Pacific Symphony.

The free program, which features a different composer each year, is offered at 30 elementary schools in the county, including Wallace R. Davis in Santa Ana.

Cooney's part is the Prelude, the first of the five-part program that puts a face on classical music for students, parents and teachers.

Schools are assigned a musician, who teaches grade-level lessons and brings fellow musicians along for a family-night show; teachers get workshops, books and a CD for class use; students put on a show, and everyone goes to the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa to see the orchestra.

"It makes kids aware that the symphony is not just a place where the people on stage wear black and you go to it when you have a lot of money," said Lynne Yadlin, parent coordinator at Eastshore Elementary in Irvine. "It makes it a part of their lives."

In some districts, such as Anaheim, Class Act is the only musical experience at the elementary level. But even in districts such as Irvine and Tustin, where there are other music offerings, the nationally recognized program is a hit with parents and teachers.

Teachers such as Kim Hillis at Barbara Benson Elementary in Tustin, said they learn as much as the students. And students are "absolutely lit on fire by music," Yadlin said.

Cooney's job is to introduce the composer and the musician, who visits about 16 times, to the school. At Price, the musician is clarinetist Joshua Ranz, who began his musical career playing the recorder at age 4 and picked up the clarinet at 7.

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Cooney's fine-arts training started with childhood tap dancing and piano lessons and parts in high school plays. As a Catholic nun in the Bay Area for 14 years, Cooney taught school until she left the convent and moved to Orange County in the 1960s. She studied at UC Irvine, taught drama and staged lavish musicals at Fountain Valley High, where actress Michelle Pfeiffer was one of her students.

After retiring from full-time teaching 12 years ago, Cooney taught acting workshops to children and adults, and worked with the Way Off Broadway theater company in Santa Ana.

Her current role is more fulfilling than the theater, she said, because she can participate with the audience.

"It's like a circle. Everything I've ever done is all here in this program. It's perfect," said Cooney, who gets to teach, act, write, craft costumes and occasionally sing.

She researches the composer, the dress and manners of the times, listens to music, writes a script and compiles a CD for the Prelude. Then she shops at thrift stores for costume material--the blue velvet underskirt in her Bach costume was a bathrobe.

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For Mozart, Lady Storytell wore a big black dress with a huge white wig. For Gershwin, she was a flapper. For Tchaikovsky, she donned a red dress with an antique shawl. And for Bernstein, she wore a blue velvet column dress with long white gloves.

Once she gets their attention, Cooney uses her vocal skills and tosses interesting tidbits about the composer's life into the musical mix.

"Bach was CHER-man," she tells the students, projecting her voice and effecting a German accent as she discussed Bach's birth into a musical family in which "everyone was named Johann."

Students filed into the gym to the strains of Bach's Orchestral Suite in D, heard bits of Magnificat, a Brandenburg concerto, Toccata Concerto in F, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "St. Matthew Passion."

They walked out to an updated arrangement of the master's works, "Be-Bop Bach" from the "Bach for Babies" album.

And Cooney? Well, she said happily, she had another show in half an hour.

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For more information, call Lise Slack, Class Act manager, (714) 755-5788, Ext. 226. Web site: http://www.pacificsymphony.org.

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