We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Carnival of the Animals at Miller Theater of Columbia University (photo by Karli Cadel)

Saturday night found us uptown at the fine Miller Theater of Columbia University to witness an annual event that somehow had formerly escaped our notice.  It should not escape your notice, especially if you have children to introduce to classical music.

Our very own childhood introduction to classical music was through Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, from which we learned to identify the various instruments of the orchestra.

Camille Saint-Saëns began to write his Carnival of the Animals whilst teaching at the conservatory in Paris, but did not finish it for over twenty years. Perhaps he was procrastinating in finishing his work on his Third Symphony or was motivated by the event of a private performance by his elderly cellist friend Charles Lebouc on the occasion of Mardi Gras in 1886.

The composer was reluctant to have the work published and it was only under pressure from his friends that he allowed one movement to be published; and who doesn't love "The Swan" which was used for the famous ballet "The Dying Swan", a four minute piece choreographed in 1905 by Mikhail Fokine for Anna Pavlova, who danced it about 4000 times! Most recently we have enjoyed it performed by a male dancer in tutu for Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

How fortunate for us that the entire work was eventually published post mortem.  Saturday it was performed with the witty poetry of Ogden Nash recited by narrator Jennifer Kidwell. If much of the poetry went over the heads of the little ones in attendance, it surely struck a chord with the big people.

We are not sure whether Saint-Saëns' humorous music made a big impression on the wee ones either but we enjoyed the subtle references to other musicians' works and the evocative nature of the melodies and rhythms,

What seemed to capture the attention of the wee ones were the imaginative puppets designed by Lake Simons. These were no ordinary puppets. A team of six black-clad puppeteers maneuvered various household articles which were pressed into service as hooves and cockscombs. 

Tortoises were represented by umbrellas. Kangaroos were constructed of boomerangs, of course. A very special moment was when the "joey" appeared to jump into the mama's pouch.

In a master stroke of imagination, four metal buckets became the feet of an elephant. Was that a vacuum clean hose repurposed as a trunk that blew out confetti? 

A bunch of fossil bones became a skeleton. Feather dusters became an intrusive cuckoo which interrupted the wedding of two birds--all in response to  Mr. Nash's clever text.  The wee ones enjoyed this enormously but perhaps enjoyed even more the mules fighting over a missing ear.

It was impressive to see an audience of children enraptured by all this creativity.

But from this big person's point of view, our second favorite was "Aquarium" in which the flowing music was reflected by floating fabrics as schools of fish swam by, some on mobiles and others on the heads of the puppeteers who turned their heads back and forth creating the illusion of fish swimming through the water. Children in the audience also had fish-sticks to be waved back and forth.  They loved the audience participation.

And our first prize goes to, of course, "The Swan" who gazed at herself in several mirrors and stretched her long neck, created from a thick cable.

The lovely music was played by a chamber orchestra of ten, comprising two pianos and a string quartet, augmented by flute, clarinet, bass, and percussion. The Music Director was Laura Barger who also played one of the pianos.  Lighting Designer was Kate McGee.

We understood this to be an annual event. Don't let it pass you by next year.

(c) meche kroop

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