Two weeks ago, my little company faced its toughest audience yet: early music connoisseurs plus a pile of kids. It was an experiment and a risk. Would toddlers enjoy German Baroque oratorio? Would discerning listeners mind some wiggling and whispering in the pews? Can you really call it a family concert if it’s nothing more than a regular concert, just with an invitation to wiggle and whisper?
It was my first real journey into sacred music. I cribbed most of the rep from the René Jakobs/Concerto Vocale recording, which has the Christmas Story (Weihnachtshistorie, SWV 435) by Heinrich Schütz as its centerpiece. In our performance, we began with a Gabrieli instrumental, then the annunciation duet (SWV 333), surprising our Mary, who was seated in the audience. The trio Joseph, Du Sohn David (SWV 323) showed us the inner life of our production’s other protagonist, and Rorate coeli (SWV 322) sealed the deal before we launched into the Christmas Story. We ended with a double choir Praetorius setting of In dulci jubilo (AKA Good Christian Men Rejoice). It was a high point for me artistically, and we are hopeful the production and the children’s component have a future.
To heighten the wonderfully human ways in which Schütz depicts Mary and Joseph and to animate the extended recitatives of the Weihnachtshistorie (which I think make a standard concert version of the work especially difficult for English-speaking audiences), Walker Lewis used our entire venue to create a touching staging: angels sang from balconies, the wise men walked down the aisle looking for the newborn king, and Mary gave birth on stage. Among Walker’s talents is a deep respect for the music, and knowing just how much each moment really needs. I had pictured Joseph, du Sohn David with the whole cast elaborately choreographed to draw Joseph back to Mary, when all it needed was Mary’s outstretched hand.
Deborah Houston brought the show to life with costumes inspired by Bruegel, and we couldn’t have asked for better music direction by Jeff Grossman and the stellar band assembled by my co-conspirator Liza Malamut. Audience members – even kids, even people who are completely unfamiliar with this musical style – said they were surprised at their own emotional response to the story, could follow well enough without the translations, and left filled with the holiday spirit.
But back to the kids. Here’s what I think went right:
- Give children something worth paying attention to and they will. Visuals help.
- 60 minutes is a good length.
- Families said they were put at ease when we gave them permission to explain the story to their kids and move around if they have to.
- My Baroque Instrument Coloring Book and crayons surely didn’t hurt.
- Adults without children understood that it would be a family concert, and said they enjoyed it despite some squawks (from the kids).
Thoughts for next time:
- Some English narration would have guided adults and children.
- With so many cast entrances from the center aisle, we should invite children to sit near the aisle, so the singers can interact with them.
- Extra squirmy/noisy folks hung out toward the back of the sanctuary, and might have been made more comfortable if there was better lighting back there.
- Families flocked to the front to meet the instruments afterwards, and it seemed like they had to wait a good bit to see each one. Inviting them to stay seated while the players found more space throughout the church would have helped.
I intend this to be the first of more concerts for adults to enjoy alongside children. I don’t know if this form has already been tried and abandoned, but I would pay any price take my kid to more “serious” concerts, as long as audience and artists understood that there might be some disruption. Standard children’s concerts often involve so much talking and instrument show-and-tell, it’s as if presenters are afraid to let music speak for itself.
But how could I take a 7-year-old to a Met Museum concert (for just $1!) if she’s not used to the ritual, routine, and experience of a real concert?