I have recently had to refresh my general knowledge regarding, well … the entire universe. My son, aged four, is fascinated by space and his endless curiosity has forced me to become quite an expert on the order of the planets, the difference between meteors and meteorites and, of course, the likelihood of an alien invasion. I was pleased, therefore, to hear that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were bringing their family concert – Stan and Mabel and the Race for Space – to Perth Concert Hall.
Stan and Mabel are the creation of children’s author and illustrator Jason Chapman. The adventures of the lovable cat and dog duo are narrated by Chris Jarvis, with a score from Paul Rissmann and the SCO conducted by Catherine Larsen-Maguire. Given how many young children share my child’s interest in space, putting Stan and Mabel in a rocket was always going to be a stellar idea.
It was no surprise then to find the Concert Hall mobbed with children, many of them on school outings. James and I attended the SCO’s performance of Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants last year, so we had high hopes of another absorbing musical escapade.
As the players tuned up, James watched them with avid attention. “Is that the conductor?” he queried, looking at the leader of the first violins. “She’s looking at her instructions!” he whispered excitedly, as the timpanist turned the pages of her music. I love how these concerts by the SCO can kindle young children’s interest in the orchestra.
The musicians launched into the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 and for a few moments, amongst the entranced audience, there wasn’t a whisper. Seeing kids between four and ten years old fully engrossed by classical music, rather than transfixed by a phone or a tablet, was heartening.
As the final notes died away and the audience applauded enthusiastically, our narrator Chris ran onstage. I was already certain that this production was going to be tailor-made for youngsters, but Chris’s effervescent energy, not to mention his sparkly cat ears, confirmed my expectations. He told us a little about Prokofiev and then talked us through the nuts and bolts of the orchestra.
The kettle drums rumbled and the snare drums rapped their rat-a-tat-tatIntroducing each section in turn, he encouraged the children to think about the different kinds of sound the instruments made. Braver members of the audience shouted out their answers (the tuba and trombone could surely be nothing other than elephantine!) while my quieter little boy waved shyly at the musicians as they demonstrated their skills. The kettle drums rumbled and the snare drums rapped their rat-a-tat-tat, and Chris explained how the string players could either pluck or play using their horsehair bows.
After this, we were called upon to participate. A video had been available online, which provided the words and actions for several songs included in the performance. This meant children could practice in advance of the show, and then join in. Unfortunately, it seemed I’d had a mummy fail and neglected to prepare James in this fashion. No matter. The songs were sufficiently simple and catchy that we were able to stretch our vocal cords without any rehearsal. James gamely threw himself into the group renditions of “Come with us. We’re off to a wonderful place”, “It’s all gone silly bonkers!” and “At the school for wild and dangerous animals”. It helped to have the words on a big screen behind the orchestra.
Finally, the story of Stan and Mabel began to play out. The tale was narrated by Chris over an orchestral accompaniment, with the twists and turns of the plot and the emotions of the characters effectively heightened by the music. The beautifully detailed illustrations by Jason Chapman were displayed onscreen, bringing the animals to life.
The storyline shone a spotlight on the ecological plight of the earth, with creatures of every species unhappily ousted from their natural habitats and forced into the rat race of city life. There was a villain (of course), a heist on the transport museum, and ultimately an ill-fated venture into space. Plenty there to captivate young imaginations. I particularly liked the appearance of ‘The Greatest Animal Orchestra in World’ – a nod back to the original Stan and Mabel book which James and I have enjoyed reading at home.
This fantastic concert was just forty-five minutes long (no interval for an ice-cream, to James’s despair) but this is a good running time for the attention spans of most youngsters. James pocketed a handy souvenir – a sheet of word games and puzzles provided for each child – and I caved in to repeated demands for a Cornetto on our way home.
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