Going Classical With Babar, Mother Goose

Lynne Heffley is a Times staff writer

In the great forest, a little elephant was born . . .

So begins "Babar the Elephant," an evocative new recording of the seldom-heard work by Francis Poulenc, based on Jean de Brunhoff's beloved children's book creation and with spellbinding narration by Meryl Streep.

The new release also features two versions of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite, one played by nationally acclaimed duo pianists Mona and Renee Golabek, with poetic fairy tale introductions performed by Streep. The other is instrumental only, with the New Zealand Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta.

"It's been a project that has encompassed a year out of my life," said Mona Golabek, the driving force behind a recording that she hopes "will reach out to young audiences and to the child in everyone."

It came about because of her desire to honor Audrey Hepburn and "what her life's work was about after she left the movies," Golabek said. The late actress-humanitarian, who was goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, "did everything in the service of children."

Golabek and Hepburn met while working on the 1992 all-star charity recording of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" and spoke at length one day "about children, arts, education and the state of the world."

"Let's say that she spoke, and I listened," Golabek said. "I never forgot it. When she passed away, I wanted to do something to pay tribute to her and to her words that echoed in my heart."

In addition to creating a recording that Golabek said she hopes "Audrey will look down upon and smile," she arranged for part of the proceeds to go to the nonprofit Audrey Hepburn's Hollywood for Children Foundation, which, under the direction of Hepburn's son, Sean Ferrer, helps those in the entertainment industry raise funds for children's causes around the globe.

It was noted conductor Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony and the Virginia Symphony, who suggested "Babar," Golabek noted.

"I have always loved the music of Poulenc," Falletta said. "And I realized that there was no good and recent recording of this incredible piece. Setting aside all of the fun it is for kids, the music itself is so beautiful that I thought it's a shame that we don't hear this."

Why isn't Poulenc's "Babar" as well known as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf"?

"It's a mystery to me," Falletta said. "I think the story is much more interesting, frankly. And the music is much more varied. I suppose people are just used to the Prokofiev, so it's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of children and music, but I think that this is in every way the equal of that piece."

"The Poulenc score is very sophisticated and complex," Golabek noted. "It challenges the listener."

It's also "very descriptive and dramatic," Falletta said. When Babar is rocked to sleep by his mother, when he meets the "rich old lady who understands little elephants," shops for fine clothes, tootles around in his car and makes his joyous return to the forest, "the music exactly illustrates that. The wonderful scene at the end, when night falls and the stars come out--it takes very little imagination to really be able to see that in the music."

Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite is "sublime music" too, Golabek said. Streep reads resonant short pieces that set the stage for Ravel's musical portraits of Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, the Empress of the Pagodas, Beauty and the Beast and "The Fairy Garden."

Golabek used translations of "exquisite" fairy tale poems she found on the score itself, by 17th century French author Charles Perrault and others.

"It was a very spontaneous thing," Golabek said. "I wanted to do something special with that music and make it reach out to the kids so that when they listened, they would hear the poems or at least have some inkling of what the music was about. I felt that Ravel gave me the license to do it by having those French poems right there on the score."

The pianist enlisted the aid of Lee Cohen, a writer and co-owner of the Every Picture Tells a Story gallery in Los Angeles, to compose the word pictures that were missing from the score, such as "The Fairy Garden": In the garden where we live forever after as children . . . where memory and time rise from the fragrant green earth.

"That was the simplest to write," Cohen observed, "because the music is so emotional and there's such a feeling of release and of sort of giving yourself over to a kind of a dreamlike state."

A second version of the "Babar" recording is due out in March, one geared more toward adult listeners. Its content will include Streep's narration, but the "Mother Goose" Suite piano version will be replaced by the Golabek sisters' rendition of the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto, recorded with the New Zealand Symphony.

The recording is especially nice, Ferrer said, not only "because my mother worked with Mona in the past" but because "she was a very big fan" of Streep's work.

"She would have been thrilled that Meryl Streep did something that would benefit the foundation," he said.

Streep donated her royalty, he said, "and a portion of the other performers' royalties will be coming to us, as well as a small portion from the record company [Koch International Classics]. Everybody's pitching in something."

"It was a true labor of love," Golabek said, "on the part of a lot of people [who] devoted a year out of their lives to help this project come to fruition.

"And the corporate response was amazing," she added. "It was so heartwarming. Where most people in this day and age want to say no, it's like everybody came out of the woodwork and said, 'What can we do?' It's a tribute to Audrey's memory."

* "Babar the Elephant," Koch International Classics. CD, $15; cassette, $8.

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