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S & H Concert Review

‘A Wilde Concert’ Clarke, Alford, Debbie Wiseman: animated films of short stories by Oscar Wilde: presenter Atarah Ben-Tovim: Children’s Classic Concerts, Barbican Hall, December 6th 2003 (ME)


The flautist and concert presenter Atarah Ben-Tovim has been a feature of the musical scene in London for almost 30 years now, and her original aim ‘to inspire children to make music themselves and not just become passive consumers of the pop industry’s products’ is as worthwhile now as it ever was. Little Rollo and Maisie (and yes, Sam and Amy too) in their classy Princess n’ Giant outfits, recorders and tambourines clutched in their hot little hands, are the paying public of tomorrow, the ones upon whom artists and promoters will depend for their living, and events such as this which encourage them to enjoy ‘real’ music as participants as well as audience members are one of the best ways I can think of to maintain the spirit of music as a live art.

Since there were no notes provided (although a quiz sheet with snippets of the music was given out, and much enjoyed by my 11 and 5 year olds) there was no information on ‘The National Symphony,’ (presumably of London?) but it was an impressive band nonetheless – granted, the music wasn’t exactly demanding, but to say the players gave their all would be an understatement, and for me the most valuable part of the evening was the brief introductions to the main pieces, during which Ben-Tovim highlighted various instruments which were then played with some gusto.

The programme was very cleverly planned: beginning with Jeremiah Clarke’s rousing ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ (complete with tambourine contributions from the children) then interspersing the main works with ‘Colonel Bogey’ and finally the signature ‘William Tell Overture,’ (a veritable cacophony of youthful blowing and banging ) the two animated films based on Oscar Wilde stories, accompanied by a new score from Debbie Wiseman, were thus calm oases during which the concentration of the vast majority of the children was a marvel to behold.

Debbie Wiseman is well known to those who appreciate film soundtracks and TV theme music: she has won many prestigious awards, and rightly so, for her style is not lacking in individuality considering the constraints of the genre. She favours a soft focus approach to harmonic structure, a fluent shaping of melody and a somewhat Romantic concept of programme music in which strength is signalled by loud brass instruments and sweetness by flutes and harps – but since that’s what Beethoven, amongst others, often employed it’s not to be too readily sniped at. Wilde’s stories are of course wonderful – ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ concerning itself with the capricious nature of love and the utter selflessness of the idealist whose lifeblood is spent in the creation of the one perfect bloom, only to see it rejected, and ‘The Selfish Giant’ with the nature of isolation and altruism, with a sentimental twist at the end. The animated films are quite startlingly beautiful, with jewel-bright colours inspired by Eastern designs, and superbly evocative scenery: many moments stood out, but especially remarkable was the one when the nightingale’s heart is finally pierced by the thorn, evoking gasps from many of the younger members of the audience.

The narratives were neatly framed by introductions in which a crotchety uncle tells tales to an initially unwilling niece – Pete Postlethwaite predictably superb as the uncle – and from the first moment, the children were hooked. Wiseman’s music drew out all the pathos of the stories, and the orchestra, conducted by the composer, played it with love and commitment, if a little too much volume at times. Anyone who fears that all 5 to 12 year olds have had their powers of concentration shot to pieces by a constant diet of ‘The Simpsons’ should have seen the rapt expressions on many of the little faces present during these works. For those who could not be at the Barbican, the films, complete with music, will be shown on Channel 4 on Boxing Day at 2.50 p.m.


Melanie Eskenazi



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