Friday 2 January 2015

Walking in the Air and Capturing the Wolf: A Musical Christmas

There is little in life to surpass the child-like anticipation of Christmas, a feeling I hope I will never lose; but this year with a three year old truly immersed in the wonder of it all, I deliberately minimised time spent shopping and majored on the music, the magic and the mystery. We carolled, read stories, made decorations, learned about the history of advent and indulged in a lot of festive play. And whilst Christmases come and go and the ribbon-clad material remains have long outlived their useful purpose, I believe and hope that it is the experiences, the feeling of awe and joy, that will stay with my little ones as they did for me.

There were periods when I was a child when my parents couldn't afford to take me to the ballet, and I will never forget nor cease to be grateful for the generosity of friends of theirs who, realising the enduring value of such things took me to see both the Kirov and the Bolshoi. I can still remember our position, the seats, the atmosphere, can almost see the tutus swirling in my mind's eye. These kind people gave me enduring gifts that are still coming to fruition and it is a legacy I take seriously for my babies too. Likewise, my parents sought out and brought to life an inspiring selection of classical music that has stayed with me ever since. They chose pieces that painted pictures with sounds, compositions aimed at children, ones that told stories or could be acted out and taught me about the orchestra. Favourites included Peter and the Wolf, John and the Magic Music Man, The Snowman, The Anvil Chorus, Troika, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Hall of the Mountain King and The Nutcracker.

Christmas for me, more than any other season, is the time for memories, for dreaming and re-gaining the wonder in life and I was delighted to have the opportunity this advent to take Culturebaby to see her first ballet, The Snowman, and then to go as a whole family to see a festive concert at Cadogan Hall with a programme so perfect that it could have been designed for her.

Culturebaby like many her age, adores Raymond Briggs' inspired classic The Snowman. It formed the soundtrack to last Christmas and it has a score by Howard Blake so beautifully composed and enduringly memorable that she can narrate the story from the music alone. Pieces like this matter, they train a child's ear, stretch the imagination and instil a life-long love of music.

With this in mind I cannot think of a more perfect performance to introduce a three year old to the theatre than Sadlers Wells' annual ballet production of the classic The Snowman from Birmingham Repertory Theatre. This is the 17th season of this perennial favourite.
 I was a little nervous about taking such a young child to a proper theatrical production but I needn't have worried. The theatre was full of young children gripped in wonder as they remained pinned to their seats, barely able to breathe, let alone misbehave. Propped up by her special Snowman booster seat (very considerate of the Peacock Theatre) Culturebaby transformed into a mini-adult, appeciating a much loved classic for the beautiful, creative masterpiece that it is. It is a testament to the production that the children adored it, but such scenarios are also an act of trust in our little mischief-makers. Culturebaby, no stranger to energetic episodes, seems to sense what it expected of her in such an environment and she never fails to impress me. I think that in general the children sensed the utter magic of the whole event and the only moment they ran from their seats was to dance in the snow falling from the ceiling at the end, with its optimistic implication that our eponymous hero could return.

The production was beautiful, peppered with humour (and dancing fruit) with stunning set, great choreography, instruments on stage and, to Culturebaby's delight, a 'real ballerina' complete with tutu. There were a number of moments of audible delight for my little lady, and no less when the Snowman and James took to the air on strings, but I think one of the wonderful elements of this performance is that it contains a small boy only a few years older than herself. I can see that she senses, when she sees older children take part in productions such as this, that these things are also within her grasp. What wonderful inspiration for my tiny ballerina. As well as talking about the experience, and with a new found fascination for the rather unnerving Jack Frost, I've regularly found Culturebaby pawing through the programme over the Christmas period and looking at the pictures. She was rather sad that we couldn't go back and watch it again. Next year for certain...

 A few days later we were very lucky to continue our Snowman themed advent with a perfectly pitched annual family concert performed by The Mozart Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. Culturebaby had been anticipating this festive treat for a good while as it conveniently comprised not one, but her two most loved orchestral works in one sitting. Firstly we were treated to a live performance of the essential children's classic: Prokofiev's Peter and The Wolf, narrated by Jack Dee and featuring musicians dressed as their corresponding character. This piece is, without a doubt, the best classical piece I've found to introduce to young children without the aid of film. It is brilliant for car journeys and Culturebaby never seems to tire of the simple tale. At present the girls listen to the Maestro Classics version daily, as we follow the story in our simple Ladybird book.

Rather inconveniently, one of Culturebaby's only Christmas requests was a Peter and the Wolf play set. Despite my scouring the internet, it transpires that toy manufacturers have largely failed us in this regard, and I set to work pulling together a DIY version with felt, playmobil and a selection of other models. Happily it has been a roaring success and Culturebaby doesn't seem to mind that the duck, cat and wolf belong in Brobdingnag. I was relieved that she immediately clocked the theme on opening and both girls have been playing with it daily. Today we did a spot of instrument-matching with our Safari models and, despite the current lack of an oboe and bassoon, I was surprised that when my leaky mummy brain failed me, Culturebaby was able, unprompted, to identify our stand-in pencil beside Grandad as a bassoon. This set was easy to pull together and gives a great opportunity for both imaginative play and visual illustration of the story and the instruments. I'd highly recommend the effort of making one.
Back to the concert... As expected, Culturebaby was enthrawled throughout, snuggled in excited horror as as the french horns heralded the arrival of the wolf, and both girls bounced away to the catchy string theme of our cheeky main character Peter. Then following the celebratory interval ice cream, and with a finally sleepy Culturetot, we were treated to a rare opportunity. Not only was this Culturebaby's first cinematic experience as a toddler, but she sat enthralled as we watched the full film of the Snowman accompanied by a live orchestra and, a beautiful surprise, the 11 year old Choirboy Jack Topping performing Walking in the Air.

This magical pairing of musical experiences made our advent such a memorable one that it would be hard to beat. Happily both concert and ballet will be returning next year. And like so; fresh Christmas traditions are born...

Bookings for the Snowman at the Peacock Theatre for next year will be available here.

You can find information on performances at Cadogan Hall here. Next year promises a repeat of this year's brilliantly festive concert and you can already book here. They also promise an exciting concert featuring Paddington Bear's First Concert and Roald Dahl's take on the classic Jack and The Beanstalk here. If you can't wait that long. Try one of their brilliant Crash Bang Wallop Family concerts that we reviewed here.

If you fancy some inspiration for Snowman Themed Play see here and here for some ideas and see Deb Chitwood's goldmine of a site for some further ideas for Peter and the Wolf Play.

Our essential kit, in addition to our easy to make Peter and the Wolf Playset, has been this simple and easy to follow version from Ladybird of Peter and the Wolf and The Maestro Classics version of Peter and the Wolf.

For the Snowman we have a selection of Snowman and The Snowman and The Snowdog books (we love the original Raymond Briggs picture book as well as a Ladybird version which follows the (different) film storyline and our latest hand puppet book of the Snowman and the Snowdog. We also own copies of both the beautiful films and soundtracks. The old-school amongst us may be delighted to hear that the Soundtrack of the Snowman and The Snowdog has just been released on a special white vinyl.

Disclaimer: we received tickets to each of the performances for the purposes of review. We also received over recent months a few items of Snowman and Snowdog merchandise for review. We owned most of the books, DVDs and soundtracks ourselves already. All views are, as always, entirely our own. All but two of the images of the theatrical performance of The Snowman were supplied courtesy of Sadler's Wells.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, they certainly both look good. I think next year I'll have to take N for a day trip to London to see the Snowman. He would love it, just didn't work out this year. I have Peter and the Wolf on cd somewhere (have a feeling all my classical CDs are up in the roof (boo to Daddy!), but on the occasion I tried to play it, N wasn't too impressed.

    Did you see the BBC's 10 Pieces on over Christmas? Brilliant, I recorded it but haven't yet played it to N. probably aimed at slightly older children, but great if only for background music.

    Thanks for linking up again #musicexploration


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