A carnival atmosphere

In its season’s first family concert presentation — French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ celebrated “Carnival of the Animals” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale — the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra proved that not only can music soothe the savage beast, it can engage a youngster’s enthusiasm so completely, you wonder why public schools leave it off the curriculum menu in the first place.

Part of the orchestra’s regular season, three family concerts are presented each year in an effort, spokeswoman Nicolette Atkins said, to “make music as accessible as possible to children.” That would be the next generation of season-ticket holders.

“Our director, Jeffrey Kahane, is dedicated to presenting music in a way it can be explained,” Atkins said. “But we don’t pander to them. We treat music and kids’ ability to hear music seriously.”

While the adults might be serious, the children present were having nothing but fun. In the Alex’s sunlit courtyard before the concert Sunday, children were allowed to handle and play instruments the chamber orchestra uses. This instrumental petting zoo yielded some young faces scowling in concentration as they tried to keep the same beat on the snare drum as the cow-licked young musician wielding it (students from the new Central Los Angeles High School No. 9’s advanced orchestra classes volunteered the brief tutorials).

Six-year-old Anneliese Lindsay from Sierra Madre, in her pink tulle finest, was almost as tall as the slide trombone she was trying mightily to get some sound out of.

“It’s not too hard, the trombone,” she said. “Besides, I already play the violin.”

Kimberly Vasquez patiently fixed one boy’s fingers on the stops of her flute and showed him how to position his lips, saying, “Now blow!”

It was a worthy effort.

“Maybe two of the kids got a sound out,” Vasquez said. “But they all love feeling the instrument.”

LACO’s program piece “Carnival of the Animals” was written by Saint-Saëns in 1886 as a jest while on vacation, never allowing full performances of it during his lifetime, thinking it would hurt his reputation. The piece has 14 movements, beginning with a stately march of the lions, and features suites that describe donkeys, elephants and an aviary of such trilling flute runs, you could see the fluttering wings above the orchestra.

LACO’s orchestra of violins, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, clarinet and timpani showcased two musical prodigies on duel pianos: 13-year-old Kazumi Kanagawa and 11-year-old Felix Jen. Students at Los Angeles’ Colburn School of music, the young musicians fit right in with the youthful theme of the event, showing remarkable aplomb for such young artists under Kahane’s baton.

Host Alan Chapman of KUSC (91.5) FM took a break from his weekend programming to provide commentary and read poetry introducing each movement of the suite.

Haiku-like in meter and tone, the verses were written by students of 836LA, a nonprofit organization that nurtures young writers, and their poems whimsically captured the spirit of the orchestral compositions.

“I weigh a lot, and I like the way I am,” Chapman intoned as the double-bass echoed the sound of elephants tromping through.

Following a chaotic finale of tremolo notes and tumbling piano glissandi, and a participatory rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Kanagawa, the audience was invited to ask the performers questions. The children obliged.

When asked “what that thing in his hand was,” conductor Kahane said it was an orchestra leader’s baton.

“I can do a lot with it,” Kahane said. “It’s sort of like a magic wand.”

The family concerts are only part of LACO’s educational goals within the community. “Meet the Music” is a free program that they have integrated with Los Angeles Unified School District curriculum, feeding works of music to teachers as study courses, then inviting the fourth- through sixth-graders to a concert at the Colburn School.

The program’s future is in doubt, as district funding cuts have limited the ability of the schools to take the students to the end-of-year concert.

“But we are determined to find the funds somewhere so that we can provide the buses for those kids,” Atkins said.

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