Friday 30 December 2016

Wolves, Bears and Snowmen - Unforgettable Christmas Concerts

One of the most memorable and emotive of our Christmas activities each year has been attending the Amadeus Orchestra and Mozart Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concerts. Two years ago (here) we wrote about the brilliant Mozart Symphony Orchestra's Peter and the Wolf and the Snowman double bill at Cadogan Hall. This year (following an astounding diary fail last year where we turned up to the concert a day late) the Culturebabies arrived at King's Place for a repeat performance with the Amadeus Orchestra and two full year's worth of anticipation. It was worth waiting for - a double whammy of two of their most loved orchestral works in one sitting. Excitingly the Amadeus is one of the world's foremost training orchestras for young professionals and music students.

Firstly we were treated to a live performance of the children's classic: Prokofiev's Peter and The Wolf, narrated by Simon Murray and featuring musicians dressed in hats relating to their characters. The conductor was engaging and fun. He gave us facts about the instruments and told us what to look for as we progressed throughout the piece. Each instrument gave us a short demonstration. This brilliant composition is, without a doubt, the best classical piece I've found to introduce to young children without the aid of film. Written in 1936 by Prokofiev for the Moscow Theatre for Children, the work was intended to be, and was commissioned as, a guide to the instruments of the orchestra. Interestingly for us adults, given its genesis in the Stalinist regime, there are a number of political themes underlying the musical tale and it narrowly escaped state censorship (see here for an interesting article) but for adult and child alike it can also be enjoyed at face value as a brilliant musical exploration of the orchestra.

Following the interval, the concert hall was transformed into a cinema and we were presented with the full film of the Snowman in cinematic scale, but with the original soundtrack removed. Instead we were accompanied by a live orchestra and the 13 year old Choirboy Sebastian Till performing the classic Walking in the Air. As I wrote recently, a Christmas viewing of the Snowman is like a rite of passage, a ritual through which the joy of childhood is kept alive. Fully versed and note-perfect, surrounded by family and strangers alike, we re-enter annually this intimate tale of belief, living life to the full and dealing with loss. Nothing says 4 sleeps to Christmas like a viewing of the Snowman and as far as cinematic experiences for children go, this was pretty impossible to beat.

Paddington Bear’s First ConcertThis fantastic series of Christmas concerts varies each year a little but retains many of its most magical components. They've since added an out of London concert in Cheltenham too. Last year, Culturebaby (then just 4) and I headed over to the first in the series: Paddington Bear's First Concert at Cadogan Hall. This was varied, funny and entertaining with narrators as distinguished as Simon Callow and Richard E. Grant.

It began with a welcome surprise, a startlingly moving arrangement for a Symphony Orchestra of the main themes from Frozen. Frankly if most parents of little women knew this, the tickets would have sold out in record time for this element alone. We then moved on to the main billing, a narrated musical story (first performed in 1986) of the lovable Paddington Bear; charting his journey from Peru to Portobello Road to an eventual (and unscheduled appearance) in one of London's finest concert halls. Finally we squirmed our way through Roald Dahl's quirky and characteristically macabre Revolting Rhymes version of Jack and the Beanstalk set to music. Whilst this day of the programme was less traditionally Christmassy than the classic double billing, it was musically accomplished and enormous fun - and I see that this year they combined Frozen and Paddington with Briggs' Father Christmas.

Follow On Activities

Rather inconveniently, one of Culturebaby's only Christmas requests two years ago 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, including a set of Safari TOOBs miniature instruments. Happily it was a roaring success, easy to create, 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. We've also since discovered a couple of great story book titles - there are various versions from Ladybird and a beautifully illustrated edition by Ian Beck with text boxes fringed with the instruments present at each point in the story. We've also found an English National Ballet School performance available on DVD, which the children love, and an academy award winning (best short film 2008) animated film.

Over the years we've also enjoyed an enormous amount of fun along the theme of The Snowman and this year I produced an extensive Christmas round up from biscuit making to imaginative play activities. Click here to read this post.

Disclaimer: We received tickets to the performance in exchange for an honest review.  We received the Safari Toob Instrument back a couple of years ago for review purposes too. All other materials and ideas are our own.

Dancing in the Snow: Magical Christmas Family Theatre

Over the last three years we have seen some incredible children's theatre; inspiring, thought provoking, exqusitely beautiful. This magical corucopia always flows to its greatest excess around Christmas and again this year we've been lucky to be invited along to some of the most wonderful festive offerings from some of our favourite theatres. With the advent of children, the enchantment of Christmas returns with all its glory, and when I look back on my childhood what remains with me is not the plastic paraphenalia, the material or gastronomic glut that we have come to associate with the season; it is the family time, the carols, the stories and the experiences. I have no doubt that our festive concerts and theatre trips will remain tightly woven into the fabric of the girls' childhood memories; more valuable than toys, and with the potential to be renewed annually.

Here are four brilliant shows we have seen over the last two years and highly recommend, some still available this year, most perennially available every Christmas - a testament to their enduring appeal.

English National Ballet's The Nutcracker

Image Courtesy of the ENB 2015
Last year I wrote that if it were possible to pinpoint the single most influential and enduring cultural moment in Culturebaby's life to date, without doubt I'd look to our trip to see the English National Ballet's gloriously Edwardian and throroughly spellbinding production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker in January of 2015. Last year we returned to experience one of their special under 5s performances (no different - just children of all ages welcome). This production is the perfect first introduction to ballet for a child. Short, fast moving, easily intelligible and gloriously visual. The music is distinctive and memorable; the costumes the stuff of childhood dreams. The whole experience is the epitome of Christmas enchantment with its story of a unique present, gifted by a beloved Godfather: a Nutcracker who comes to life, whisking our heroine Clara away from the clutches of an army of mice to a distant land of sweets. If, like mine, your children are in love with their ballet slippers, I can't think of a better Christmas present than this performance with its host of talented young children providing a tangible goal for our aspiring dancers.
Nutcracker  Image Courtesy of ENB
The Nutcracker was the first ballet I saw as a child and I still remember it, but it wasn't by the ENB and I wasn't three. I was initially hesitant, unsure whether this was too soon.  Would they sit still? Would it be too frightening? I needn't have worried. By no means an unusual toddler, and as prone to fidgetting as any, Culturebaby sat utterly entranced throughout the entire production, and not only that; she lived it daily for the following six months. Every day she requested to listen to the full ballet as she played, and on many an occasion she watched the Kirov's production on DVD and copied the steps. She created again and again the land of sweets with materials as diverse as playdoh, confectionaries and crayon. She saw the theme everywhere from the art of Hunderwasser to the decoration of a cupcake. Our old wooden nutcracker and a stuffed toy mouse were constant companions. We looked for every possible version of the story available. So last year I had no hesitation about bringing our just 2 year old along to the family performance. Accustomed to the soundtrack and excited by the chance to finally see it too, she hummed along and sat equally engaged throughout. I had thought that three was a stretch for a first ballet, now I'm completely convinced that a toddler will gain much from the experience too. The girls act out theatre productions at home, they create dances. These experiences are becoming part of their lexicon and life. I'm so glad we started so early.

For Nutcracker-inspired activities see here.

Sadler's Wells: The Snowman

The other, less traditional, first ballet we attended with (then) a three year old Culturebaby was the gorgeous stage show of the classic Briggs' tale The Snowman, presented by Sadler's Wells and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre at the Peacock and now in its 19th year. Christmas for me, more than any other season, is the time for memories, for dreaming and re-gaining the wonder in life and little encapsulates this sensation better than this beautiful story coupled with Howard Blake's ingenious score. Pieces like this matter, they train a child's ear, stretch the imagination and instil a life-long love of music.

We've returned to this performance now every year and it still holds every inch as much enchantment as when we first saw it together. This year we were in the stalls, close to the action and literally able to dance in the snow falling at the coda, with its optimistic implication that our eponymous hero could return.

The production is gorgeous. It is peppered with humour (with its oversized animals, comedic household discoveries and dancing fruit) and though the set is relatively simple the props are very effective. The scene when the toys come to life in James' room is particularly lovely. The choreography is great - the dance of the Snowman is a joy to watch, there are instruments on stage and singing, a motorbike and, to the girls' delight, a 'real ballerina' complete with tutu. The entire audience burst into spontaneous applause this year as both Snowman and James took to the air on strings. Culturebaby, remembering moments from last year, waited with impatient anticipation for the arrival of the gymnastic and rather sinister Jack Frost.

One of the truly wonderful elements of this experience is that the entire audience know the story and ritual-like enter into the story together. They know it, they love it, and they cheer it on to its inevitable sadness-tinged ending. The Snowman is a Christmas tradition and a rite of passage. It is a tale of belief, living life to the full and dealing with loss. For us parents that too may include the loss of our own childhood - but immersing ourselves anew into this story whilst clutching our delighted babies, we too can re-visit the wonder and see yet more layers of meaning in this most ingenious of Christmas tales.

For a selection of Snowman themed activities see here.

Sadler's Wells - The Little Match Girl

Photographs Courtesy of Sadler's Wells and Phil Conrad
Arthur Pita's dance theatre adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic is a refreshingly different sort of Christmas tale. In its fundamentals the story of the little girl is truly tragic, but this adaptation combines the sad with the hopeful and more than anything gives us pause for thought in this cold season about what more we ought to be doing for those in need.

One of the loveliest things about my five year old is that she hasn't become hardened to the world. Like many children she is full of compassion and cannot understand why the rest of the world can be so unthinking. She cannot walk pass a homeless person on the streets of London without emptying her bag of food and handing it over. I hope that she will never lose this urge.

She really related to this story of Fiammetta, a young girl in an imaginary Italian town who is forced to sell matches in the bitter cold. The little girl is full of joy, but also experiences great cruelty at the hands of those in competition with her and wealthy families who do not want to associate themselves with the poor. When she has her shoes stolen and her matches burned, the little girl begs for help with no success. She is chased away from the warmth and to her Grandmother's grave where, burning her few remaining matches, she dies. She is discovered too late by townspeople who had rejected her. But then comes an element of hope - the spirit of her loving grandmother guides her away from the cruel earth and to the moon from where she is able to watch over the little match girls of the future. She is warm and free.

The dancing is gorgeous, the scenery (such as the glowing moon) really beautiful, and even such a tragic tale is effectively infused with comedy and lightheartedness. Though there is no English dialogue (it has a little Italian in the songs) this is surprisingly no issue. The acting speaks for itself. It was a truly refreshing experience and one which has stayed both with me and with the children. Culturebaby wants to do some fundraising at school for the homeless. If she's taken this away as a Christmas message from this brilliant production, there is little more valuable.

To accompany this show I'd recommend the beautiful Taschen Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which contains this classic story amongst 23 others with stunning artwork from 1840 through to 1980 from a wide range of countries. Taschen is so good at producing compliation volumes that themselves are works of art to treasure. We gave this beautiful volume to the girls as a Christmas gift.

The Unicorn Theatre - Baddies the Musical

We've properly discovered the wonderful children's theatre, The Unicorn, this year. The theatre, which has a home near London Bridge, was founded by Caryl Jenner as a touring company in 1947 with a commitment to giving children a valuable, and often first ever, experience of quality theatre, and a philosophy that 'the best of theatre for children should be judged on the same high standards of writing, directing, acting and design as the best of adult theatre'. Today, the Unicorn is the UK's leading professional theatre for young audiences, dedicated to inspiring and invigorating young people of all ages, perspectives and abilities, and empowering them to explore the world – on their own terms – through theatre. It is a wonderful, welcoming, space and we've loved visiting in recent months.

This Christmas we went to see the quirky Baddies the Musical, which returned to the theatre this year. It's a fun take on the fairytale world, examining what might happen if you were to extricate the baddies from their respective tales, leaving only the sunnier storylines. Inevitably we see that they are in fact required. Life is made up of contrasts: light is only understood in contrast with the dark, goodness when opposed by malevolence. We are also led to examine what are goodness and badness anyway? Intentionality matters. The cast is brilliant - the 'ugly' sisters have stunning voices and harmonics, Rumpelstiltskin in his efforts to be taken seriously is really quite adorable and Peter Pan is charmingly unpleasant. It's a fun musical adventure, but one with a deeper message and frankly I'd take this over a pantomime any day. You need the bad guys - especially when they can sing.

Disclaimer: we received tickets to the first three of these performances for the purposes of a frank review, and to the Unicorn in our role as ambassadors. All views are entirely our own.

Sunday 27 November 2016

The Snowman and Snowdog Festive Blogtour

Our annual Snowman blog tour is becoming rather a tradition in itself and it serves as a great opportunity to snuggle up and watch these beautiful classics, get in the Christmas spirit and indulge in a spot of creativity. Regular readers will know that each year we are set a creativity challenge with some of the inventive themed products out there, and this year - to the children's delight - we were invited to design our own Snowdog using a beautiful model and paint. Following some debate about whether we ought to replicate the classic character or emulate a famous artist (Mondrian-dog? Hirst Spotty Pooch?) the 5 and 3 year old Culturebabies over-ruled and declared that he would be of a rainbow sparkly variety. Ably project managed by Daddy, we all set to work. It was a really lovely activity to do together on a cold afternoon and we've produced something that we will be able to keep for future memories.

This challenge was also particularly interesting, as this year the producers of our kit Wild at Art have worked with Penguin to deliver two public art trails in Brighton and Newcastle. Living in London we've been lucky to experience several of these - they are such a brilliant way to raise money for charity, engage, introduce and display art, showcase talent and transform urban space. We loved the rhinos in Exeter over the summer, Paddington last year, and the BFG dream jars have been incredibly popular amongst many families we know. The Snowdogs in Brighton have their last day today...

Featured Image-7
Photographs from the Brighton trail website
Featured Image-12
Last year our challenge was to make biscuits with a set of Snowman and Snowdog themed cookie cutters. Despite me being a completely unseasoned baker, we really got into this and enjoyed it enormously. The children love little more than baking with Nanny, but armed with this year's welcome Snowman themed baking kits (pre-prepared ingredients and easy to follow instructions) I'm planning on giving it a go again - I'm told by the children, later today. I will share the results, or lack thereof...
Over the years we've had so much fun with the Snowman - to the extent that we've now accumulated a list of specifically themed activities to get you in the Christmas mood. These work for a range of children's ages. 

1. Snowman and Snowdog Christmas Cookies 
These simple Christmassy smelling and tasting biscuits are based on an extremely simple recipe. A golden syrup, ginger and cinnamon combination worked really well for the season.

Sift together 350g plain flour, 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Add 2tsp ground ginger and 1 tsp ground cinnamon

Add 125g butter and blend until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in 175g soft brown sugar.

Lightly beat an egg and 4tsp golden syrup together, add to mixture and blend until the mixture clumps together. Knead until smooth, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 15 minutes or so whilst you preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4 and line baking trays with greaseproof paper.
 Roll the dough out to around 0.5cm on a lightly floured surface. Create shapes using the cutters.
Place on baking tray and bake for 12-15 minutes. Leave to cool for 10 minutes. 
We then varied the recipe to suit tiny hands using roll-out icing to cover each biscuit (also using the cutters) and tubes of food colouring gel for decoration.  

2. Running a Snowman on the Shelf Advent

Lots of parents arrange an advent activity called  Elf on The Shelf, where a cheeky little helper is sent by Santa to keep an eye on the household and consequently gets into mishaps along the way. This isn't something we have ever done, but one year we decided that our large cuddly snowman might enjoy some elf-like antics. Given that he is the ideal companion for a child throughout this festive season, and he already loves exploring the house (and gets into a few scrapes along the way), he was the perfect messenger from the North Pole for us: our very own Snowman on the Shelf.

3. Create a Snowman Themed Christmas Play Basket

Imaginative play is one of Culturebaby's favourite activities, at aged between two and four she particularly loved a series of small-world Montessori-inspired play baskets I made for her. If you have an imaginative child who loves sensory play and small objects I'd highly recommend making these simple dreamscapes for them to explore. The Snowdog joined our already much-loved little Snowman in the basket alongside a tree for Culturebaby to dress with miniature decorations.The floor of the basket was scattered with items that can be collected, matched and counted such as wooden and felt snowflakes, stars, reindeer, small presents, miniature musical instruments and bells.

4. Explore the Story through Art and Modeling

Between 2 and 3, little ones are beginning to draw with clear intention and increasing ability. Using playdoh is another way to foster this interest, and three years ago we tried modelling the characters from the Snowman, and watching others do so - as well as 'melting' (squashing) the snowman afterwards. Creating the scene of the house from playdoh and acting out certain parts of the book was really effective.

5. Imaginative Play and Storytelling with Characters
This activity has been revived a couple of years on the run. The first year, we created a snowy landscape with a large white towel and, listening to the audio soundtrack, used one of Culturebaby's play cottages and characters, with her toy snowman, to act out parts of the story. The second year, we set up a sheet of faux snow material and included the scenes with the dance of the snowmen, when Father Christmas gives James the gift of the scarf and the final morning. The girls are at the stage when they happily act out stories themselves, often together. I'm looking forward to setting this one up again this year and seeing how they use it.

6. First science experiments - Three years ago we took a few ice cubes and let them melt in a bowl at room temperature. We talked about what was happening and why - and of course why the Snowman had started to melt when he sat too close to the fireplace. Practical activities like this have also helped the girls understand and discuss differences in temperature.

7. Experiencing the magic of Snowman Christmas theatre and live concerts - for recommendations see here.

Image courtesy of Sadlers Wells and the Peacock Theatre

 This year Penguin and associates have surpassed themselves with the range of gorgeous gifts to pop in the Christmas stocking of any child who loves these brilliant Briggs' classics. Or even start early with a Thorntons White Chocolate Snowman Advent Calendar 83g (£4.50)

Here's a selection:

Paint your own Snowdog
£25 from Wild in Art
This is the gorgeous kit we used above. The dog model is really high quality and, though it comes with a selection of paints, a child can customise these in any way they wish. I love how Mummy of 2 + 1 has handmade the ears on hers (here).

The Snowman and The Snowdog Wooden Dominoes
RRP £9.99   Available from Amazon
These wooden dominoes, which feature illustrations from the film, are really cute and will be heading straight into Culturetot's stocking. At three, she's starting to really enjoy simple board games and we had a lovely morning together this week playing dominoes together in a coffee shop. She also loves using them for building. Why not?

The Snowman and the Snowdog Shape Sorter
RRP £15.00  Available from JoJo Maman Bebe
We've written a lot about the importance and brilliance of shapesorters before and we've even made our own (see here). This Snowman-themed wooden shape sorter box with four shaped holes and eight coloured wooden blocks is a particularly lovely one - perfect to encourage hand-eye coordination and shape and colour recognition.

The Snowman Book and CD, and The Snowman and The Snowdog Book and CD
Each RRP: £7.99 Available from Amazon
These brand-new editions include original artwork and freshly written text and are accompanied by audio CDs - the Snowman features narration by Matthew Macfadyen and Benedict Cumberbatch reads the brilliant new Snowman and Snowdog. These two will be featuring in our Literary Advent Calendar, which we will be covering on the blog soon. A previous year's selection can be seen here (complete with other Snowman book choices).

The Snowman and The Snowdog Snowglobe
RRP £22 Available from The Brilliant Gift Shop
This is a gorgeous gift, and one I'm very much looking forward to surprising the girls with on Christmas morning. Children are intigued by snowglobes anyway, and this is particularly magical, as the snow swirls around a central Snowman. It's sold as for baby's first Christmas but I suspect my 5 year old will whisk it away to her room.

Thorntons Snowman white chocolate model 60g
RRP £3.00 Available from grocers and convenience stores
Fans, like me, of white chocolate will be delighted with this edible Snowman. If it isn't too traumatic to eat him after we've already seen him melt, this little one will be a great stocking filler. I just need two...

Disclaimer: We were sent the material mentioned in this review as participants in this year's blog tour. All views are our own and our love for the Snowman is, as always, unwavering...
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