Theater & Arts

Musical collaboration for children

It's a big weekend for classical music with three prominent local organizations -- the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Community Chorus and the Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series -- hosting concerts. But the Philharmonic's event veers the most from its standard fare. It's designed for children.

"Tchaikovsky Discovers America" is a collaboration with Classical Kids Live!, the theatrical orchestral group that brought the popular "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" to Fresno last year.

This year's 50-minute show, designed for children 6 years and older, includes more than 25 excerpts of the composer's music woven into a story line about his famous trip to Niagara Falls.

We caught up with Paul Pement, artistic director of Classical Kids Live!, via e-mail on his flight from Chicago to Fresno.

Question: Describe the show.

Answer: The production is a bit like a play, ballet, and symphony concert all rolled into one. It tells a fictional story based in historical fact, acted out by professional actors. The dialogue is timed to the music and the emotional content of what is being said by the actors reflects the emotional mood and energy of what is being played by the orchestra. The combination of music and story elevates the overall impact on the audience, making the experience more interesting and engaging for children.

How did you pick this part of Tchaikovsky's life to concentrate on?

We use real-life historical events as the catalyst for creating a story. In this case, the story is based on the actual event whereby the great composer arrives in New York for the grand opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. He becomes angry that the hall is not completed and that the workmen are disturbing his rehearsals. His frustration is compounded by the constant hounding of reporters who are covering this momentous event. He escapes the city by taking a famous trip to Niagara Falls.

Did he like children?

Well, if his work is any indication, yes. At least he was inspired by children's fairytales to write his ballets. In our story he meets a young American girl on the train to Niagara Falls and reveals much about his life in Russia, his love of music, and his fears of conducting. Jenny dreams of becoming a ballerina and, as Tchaikovsky narrates, she dances the stories of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

All of the Classical Kids stories involve a child character -- allowing the children in the audience to identify with the character -- creating a point of entry for them to be absorbed by the story.

What do you hope kids will leave the concert knowing about Tchaikovsky?

Learning about Tchaikovsky's life specifically is wonderful, but secondary to me. Yes, children will learn that he is from Russia, he hated reporters, he wrote ballets, he was scared to conduct, etc. But our real goal is to enrich the lives of children through exposure to music, history, and culture. I hope that kids (and adults) will take away a new interest in music -- a spark of inspiration that can lead to the rewards and joy music can offer. For some, this may be the moment when they begin building a foundation in music that will last a lifetime.

You must be always thinking of ways to get children excited about classical music. What do you think the key is?

A narrative. Telling a story provides a link to human interest. It connects music to life. In this heightened reality, the combination of concert and story is magic, and can truly touch your heart. And if you can touch the heart of a child, there is a good possibility you can inspire their mind.

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