FAMILY CONCERT - CAMBRIDGE PHILHARMONIC
It’s an old conundrum – how do you encourage children to enjoy classical music? In my case it came out of the blue – or rather out of the grey: a snowy-pictured black and white telly circa 1963. There was no music in our house other than what the BBC Light Programme offered – the latest hits of Alma Cogan or Tommy Steele. So when a Beethoven concert suddenly appeared on TV and before my ma turned over to ITV, I managed to catch at least a few opening bars of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. That was it. Love at first hearing. I discovered something far more important than Columbus’ first sighting of the New World: a huge old forgotten Bakelite radio in the attic out of which came heavenly music on a station called ‘The Third Programme’ (today’s Radio 3).
A more millennial means of entering the world of Mozart and Mahler is the phenomenon known as the ‘family concert’. Children and their parents are tempted into that sacred space known as ‘the concert hall’ on the promise of fun pieces of classical repertoire, a jolly animateur and a full scale symphony orchestra to dazzle their young ears.
Such was the offer by the ever-brilliant Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra – our city’s very own LSO. Led as ever by the inspirational Timothy Redmond, the band threw away its sober blacks and donned whatever bright colours they had in their wardrobe. It made for a very jolly, child friendly sight as they trooped on to the stage of West Road Concert Hall. There to greet them and the packed house was presenter Matthew Sharp. It is hard to categorise this dynamo of a man; part great cellist and part the best children’s entertainer you should hire for the next 8th birthday party. Fizzing with energy, plastered from ear to ear with a huge wolverine smile, you could tell that the hundreds of 5-8 year-olds in the audience were going to fall under his spell. He strode on the narrow space between first violins and the precarious edge of the stage carrying a pair of snow boots and a variety of furry gear. Sharp transmuted into a wolf-like figure to tell his tale of musical animals - a carnival of carnivores.
If you were expecting Peter and the Wolf here – I am sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news. Sharp’s story telling - a touch opaque for this old fogey – conjured up a narrow range of earthly creatures from the sly, howling wolf to the great monsters of the deep. The orchestra’s job was to provide the colour, richness, threat and joy that lie below, on and above our abundant planet. The pieces chosen to illustrate Sharp’s bouncy narrative included Sibelius’ Finlandia, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, the cello piece Schelomo by Bloch – yes, strange choices perhaps but none more so than the rarely heard Beni Mora by Holst. More familiar perhaps were movie scores by John Williams full of power, spine-tingling drama and soaring themes – the Phil excelled itself here.
Matthew’s geeing up of his young audience with its audience participation (let’s all howl, let’s make up a song) scored a huge hit with his junior followers. They loved him. Here though was a strength and a weakness in the concept. During the symphonic bits, Sharp would disappear or sit off stage clearly not in character. As the sometimes languorous pieces were played, the small kids in the auditorium looked around for their missing hero and shuffled noisily in their seats. I felt that here was a trick missed – Sharp rarely engaged directly with the huge orchestra and failed to bring them into his somewhat perplexing narrative. It was like watching two separate performances – both excellent in their own way but not quite gelling as a unified idea.
These caveats aside, the concert was a wonderful effort though it’s hard to know how many Cambridge children would be encouraged into a life of concert going as a result. The conundrum remains.