If Mr. Bach Comes to Call or Beethoven Lives Upstairs have not hit your car tape or CD player, both you and your children are in for a treat! Produced by Susan Hammond, a former music teacher in Toronto who wanted something for her own children, Classical Kids was formed in 1988 and has produced one new tape every year since. The first, Mr. Bach comes to Call, begins with the take-off of the 1977 Capsule Voyager which contained, in addition to the sounds of whales, volcanoes, rain, trains, mothers, children and a kiss, 27 pieces of music, including three pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. “Voyager is still in space with the stars, but down on earth a little girl practices the piano…” Suddenly, a strange man appears in her living room. No, he is not a burglar, but the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach who talks, plays, tells her about his life, and moves his choir and orchestra into her living room. In a magical discussion of old and new, past and present the joys of wonderful music unfold. The feisty little girl is totally engaging, and Bach is undoubtedly far more charming than he was in real life. But never mind, I like this Mr. Bach and one is totally drawn into the story, time warps and all. Still their best, according to both my boys (ages 6 and 10) and my conductor husband, this is where you should begin with this series.
Beethoven Lives Upstairs was produced in 1989. Bells toil, thunder claps, March 26, 1827, “it is a day that will go down in history…Ludwig van Beethoven has died.” The story begins with a fictional young boy named Christoph, and his young uncle, a composition student in Salzburg, to whom Christoph wrote letters, the first of which began, “Dear Uncle, Something terrible has happened: a mad man has moved into our house…I beg you to tell my mother to send Mr. Beethoven away.” Christoph’s uncle writes back to him. Musical interludes, all Beethoven’s music, separate the letters. Gradually, Christoph moves from horror and embarrassment to compassion to true appreciation and affection. There is also something of the lesson that great men were often not like the rest of us.
Mozart’s Magic Fantasy, the 1990 production, begins with “Three Minutes ‘till curtain, three minutes ‘til curtain…Hang on honey, we got an opera to put on…I see you have a flute, is it a ‘magic flute’…No, my name is Sara and my mother is singing the Queen of the Night…” Again, a child enters into first the modern stage production and then is transported into the plot of Mozart’s magical opera. All the arias are sung in English and Sara actually enters into the action. It is a great introduction to opera in general, to The Magic Flute in particular, and includes about 40 minutes of excerpts interspersed throughout the dialogue. I have found that this is a tape which grows on children, sometimes not being as easily appreciated as the above two, but continues to be listened to very thoughtfully.
Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, 1991, describes Venice and Carnival time and gondoliers. Katarina, now an adult, recounts how she arrived in Venice as an orphan going to the school at the Pieta, because she could play the violin. Again, through the eyes of a child we are introduced to the world of Vivaldi and his all-girl orchestra, which in fact was one of the great musical tourist attractions of the Venice of his day.
Daydreams and Lullabies, 1992, attempts a different format from their typical “modern child entering into the time-warped world of the composer at hand” formula of their previous efforts. This recording really is a tape/CD to put on after the lights are out, or when pajamas are being put on. The singing is good, but not outstanding. I personally would prefer either wonderful children’s voices or Battle or Pavarotti for such things, with the middle area being the kind of singing that boys in particular tend to mimic and make fun of. But ultimately it is nice to have all of the famous lullabies on a single tape/CD, and there are pieces of music which you and your children really should know.
The latest effort, Tchaikovsky, was the first one of the Classical Kids series which my own children refused to listen to and which I found so totally disconcerting that listening was almost painful. In all previous efforts, the musical selections have either been largely orchestra, and therefore easily placed into an unrelated story setting (e.g. in Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi), or part of the story itself (e.g Magic Flute). In Tchaikovsky, however, the dance music from The Nutcracker, with which we are so familiar, suddenly is used as a frantic chase music with irritating voice-over! For all of us who know Tchaikovsky’s ballet music so well, we actually see productions in our head when we hear the music. The unfortunate consequence of this less successful juxtaposition of music and text is that having a totally different story put to these musical excerpts is rather like having two radio stations playing at the same time. If you don’t know Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, you may very well enjoy these tapes…you just will be a little surprised the first time you or your child sees Swan Lake or The Nutcracker.
Classical Kids latest efforts involve creating video tapes of the above by sending actors to symphony orchestras to do live reenactments of the original audio productions. DON’T BE FOOLED; JUST BECAUSE THERE ARE PICTURES DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE BETTER! These programs were created as audio productions, and the tapes/CDs are still far superior to their videos or live performances. Even my own children, who love anything on the stage or on the big screen, continue to listen to these recordings, but refuse to ever put on the videos a second time. So my final recommendation is: Let your children continue to discover the thrill of their own imaginations. Have them listen to what are some of the best children’s classical music tapes.
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics