United Kingdom Prokofiev, Howard Blake. Clemency Burton-Hill (narrator), Gabriel Ali (treble), Orchestra of St Paul’s, Ben Palmer (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 13.12.2014 (RB)
Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf
Howard Blake – The Snowman
Some of the publicity surrounding Kyung Wha Chung’s recent return to London highlighted some of the difficulties which parents and musicians face when they try to introduce very young children to classical music. This concert seemed to have found the perfect solution to the problem. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was completely sold out and crammed full of children aged from four or five upwards with their parents and grandparents. The two works on the programme were entirely suitable for this young audience, did not make unreasonable demands on their attention span, and were also first rate pieces of music.
Clemency Burton-Hill who fronts the BBC Proms and Young Musician of the Year was the narrator for Prokofiev’s wintry fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. She pitched the narrative perfectly for this young audience who seemed to be concentrating intently on the ongoing story. While the music is written for children, Prokofiev demands that performers take it seriously and it was played with scrupulous attention to detail by Ben Palmer and the OSP. The woodwind characterised the bird, duck and cat to perfection and their ongoing capers were brought winningly to life. The strings had a bright clean open sound that captured Peter’s sense of wonder and zest for adventure. As any fan of the Harry Potter books will be able to tell you, all good fairy tales need a frightening villain and the horns did an excellent job depicting the ominous threat posed by the wolf. The percussionists injected energy into the music and I could see the children in the audience reacting with a startled sense of glee to the gun shots of the huntsmen. While most of the children in the audience seemed completely wrapped up in the story, not all of them were completely quiet all of the time, and Palmer and the OSP deserve a lot of credit for not allowing themselves to become distracted and taking the audience with them.
For the second work on the programme, a cinema screen was erected behind the orchestra and Howard Briggs’ wonderful animation was shown while the OSP provided a live music accompaniment. Ben Palmer ensured that the music was completely synchronised with the live animation (which I imagine is more difficult than it looks!) and the OSP did a great job capturing the sense of childhood wonder and exploration of the world in the opening section. The scene where the snowman comes to life was magical and I liked the way the OSP brought out the comedy and fun in the subsequent scenes. Gabriel Ali, who is currently a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, sang the famous Snowman song with excellent diction, intonation and purity of tone. The scenes with Santa Claus and the other snowmen was a good way of familiarising the children again with the various instruments of the orchestra and the OSP principals clearly relished playing the various solos. The children in the audience hardly made any noise at all and were concentrating intently throughout the entire 20 minutes or so of the performance.
Overall, I thought this was an imaginative piece of programming very well executed by Palmer and the OSP and it seemed to be much appreciated by the young audience. Parents and educators should take note.