At noon, Saturday November 12, nearly all of the seats at Symphony Hall were taken up by preschoolers and elementary students, alike. The very, very young sat on their parents’ laps, while onstage, mostly high school-aged musicians took their seats, instruments in hand. They were all there for Peter and the Wolf.
Frederico Cortese, conductor of the Boston Youth Symphony, bounded onto the stage looking a bit overawed and bowed to his unusual audience. No sooner had he turned to his orchestra and raised his arms to give the signal to start, when, suddenly, came a shout from somewhere in the hall, “Maestro, I’m late, don’t start yet. I got stuck on the M-B-T-A!” A bearded Cossack in full gear charged the stage and, sizing up Cortese’s tuxedo with tails, exclaimed in a big, bold voice with a quirky kind of Russian accent, “You look very handsome. You look like a penguin. You should be in Happy Feet!”
Next, he asked all of us in the audience which instrument in the orchestra would most sound like a bird. Before we could answer, he pointed to the double bass which played four very low lumbering notes. The young audience laughed chanting, “No!” And when it came to choosing the right sound for the wolf, more preschoolers and elementary students than could be believed called back with, “French Horn!” When each character had been assigned its musical instrument for Sergei Prokoviev’s musical tale for children, he asked, “Are you ready?” A resounding “Yes!” of treble voices filled the hall.
Stephen Lang, the narrator (the Cossack), is well-known through a long record of successes and awards, starring as Colonel Miles Quaritch in Cameron’s Avatar and, most recently, as Commander Nathaniel Taylor in FOX’s adventure drama series Terra Nova. Between his own natural deep and resonant bass voice used for the narrative sections of the production and his endearing posturing as the Russian, he captured every bit of the excitement and drama of Peter and the Wolf. But more than that, Lang made the afternoon completely entertaining — fun, if you will.
When the wolf appeared at the edge of the forest with its yellow eyes and teeth, Lang ad-libbed, “And if you don’t brush your teeth, they will be yellow, too.” Then, in another moment, he had us all howling away like a wolf. When the wolf swallowed the duck whole, one youngster in the balcony voiced a “Yuk!” her father replying, “Duck dinner.” Never once would Stephen Lang let go of the audience, finding one way or another to draw us in to a story with music dating back to 1938.
His description of the Boston Youth Symphony and Frederic Cortese: “Magnificent!”
Cortese took slower tempos than most conductors, Peter’s theme sounding on a more easygoing than happy-go-lucky note. The soloists depicted their characters with a refined touch. The wolf, though, stood out in unparalleled ferociousness through the three horns first growling on low softer harmonies then howling with jarring crescendos one after the other. The orchestra impressed soundly.
“Did you enjoy that?” he said. Another “Yes!” even bigger than before came from the young listeners. “Play a wild and crazy dance for three minutes. I want to mingle for three minutes.” Concurring, Cortese thrust a larger Boston Youth Symphony into the fiercely wild, extremely intense close of Béla Bartók’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin. Meanwhile, row after row, the Cossack shook hands with the children and their parents.
Back on stage with three youngsters, one held in his arms, the other two being led hand-in-hand, the Cossack had Cortese turn over the baton. A boy and girl each took turns at conducting the high-speed, high-volume Miraculous Mandarin music — under the conductor’s expert guidance. “ONE, TWO,” he roared, and off they went. Everybody loved it! The boy bowed and the girl curtsied recognizing the limitless enthusiasm of the Saturday afternoon crowd yelling out bravos, screaming, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet.
Together, the BSO and the BYS “are committed to fostering the future of classical music. The goal of this dynamic and interactive series is to serve younger generations of classical music listeners by performing children-friendly concerts that engage, entice, and educate young audience members.”
That surely did happen. After the concert, I was introduced to Alex of elementary school age. I asked what he had thought of the afternoon.
“Great!” he replied. And what part did he like the most? “All of it,” he beamed.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.