Kids Around the Bay

By Mark MacNamara

Leonard Bernstein's Ghost

Meet the OrchestraBen Simon, director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, has never forgotten those Saturday mornings at noon, at Carnegie Hall, going to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in the early 1960s. Five years ago he created his own version of those concerts — but for very small children. He calls the series, Very First Concerts. They’ve become a huge hit.

“There’s just so little classical music in today’s culture for young people. We wanted to show them just how beautiful and exciting this kind of music is. We’re growing the audiences of tomorrow. I should add this is not watered down, but at the same time, it’s not pretentious or unapproachable. We bring humor and great care to the presentation. It’s interactive, engaging stuff.”

The show is designed for children as young as three and includes 12 musicians — four string players, four brass, four wind. Each player introduces his instrument. Simon provides a guiding narrative about orchestras and adds, “My job is to keep it all short.” Music by Mozart, Dvořák, and Giovanni Gabrieli. Dancing is encouraged. Tumbling mats included.

Simon has also assembled a series of Family Concerts that run throughout the year. Next: Nov. 3 and 4: at the Randall Museum in San Francisco; the Asian Cultural Center in Oakland; and the College of San Mateo. Go to the website's family events for more information. For children ages 3 through 12. Performances often include youth soloists.

“Meet the Orchestra” takes place Oct. 20 at 10:30 a.m., 11:10 a.m., 11:50 a.m., Congregational Church of San Mateo; Oct. 21 at 10:40 a.m., 11:20 a.m., 12 p.m., Crowden School in Berkeley (part of Community Music Day). Free admission.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

Elena's Choral Revolutions

Cantabile Youth SingersSymphony Silicon Valley Chorale's upcoming, innovative program features Carol Barnett's The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass with a five-member bluegrass band. And afterward, those bewitching melodies and songs from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, along with folk songs arranged by folk legends Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.

The Cantabile Youth Singers in Los Altos is lead by the internationally recognized Russian-American Conductor Elena Sharkova. There are actually seven choirs, with a total enrollment of 250 singers, ages four to 18. The Cantabile offers music education and vocal training, and performs in more than 20 concerts every year.

The backstory here is worth noting. Elena Sharkova, music director of the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, has long held this conviction: “We’re not going to let choral music become obsolete or irrelevant.” And so over the years she has arranged syncretisms of musical and choral styles. Latin, Cuban, and Jazz among them.

And now Bluegrass. Her desire for innovation is in part a measure of growing up in St. Petersburg where she found cultural expression relentlessly stiff and stultifying — in a word, belittling. “Now that I’m older,” she told us recently, “I see that was all just a way to keep us under control. That’s one reason Russians are not so good at improvisation” (at least until they leave the country.)

At 5, Sharkova was put on a ‘music track’, went to college at 14, took her doctorate at 23, and eventually became a conductor. But the unwritten rule in Russia is that women are not allowed to conduct a choir with men. Women and children, fine; but not men. Another unwritten rule had to do with religion: One might visit a church, to marvel at the icons and the architecture, but not to participate in a mass. Not to pray.

Cantabile Youth SingersIn the last 30 years, since coming to America, Sharkova has broken out. Yet always there is a preference for paradox. On the one hand, she reads the Dalai Lama on many mornings; on the other hand, the truth is that for her art has replaced religion. The rpm is more comforting. The revolution is more quieting. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she said quite guilelessly.

And so she finds a Bluegrass mass, which throws her for a loop, because heretofore she had no great interest in the sound, and was slightly put off by the quirky, slow-speaking, we’ll-get-around-to-it-when-we-can bluegrass culture. But when she heard the music mixed with classical instrumentation, Latin liturgy, and modern religious poems, it struck a note. And then she wondered what would happen if you mixed in a 90-member chorus.

But it’s putting this show on that really tests Ms. Sharkova’s mettle. “It’s all very improvisational. In rehearsals, we have to jam first. There’s really no program. It’s all TBD, to be decided. So you go with the flow. But while they’re trying to decide what to play, I’m saying, I have to remind you that we are on union time.

Bluegrass Meets Choral: Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and Cantabile Youth Singers, October 21, 5 p.m., Montgomery Theater, San Jose, $24.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

Hey Teachers, Don't Leave Those Kids Alone

Pink Floyd Laser showEvery weekend, the Fujitsu Planetarium features both family astronomy nights and laser light shows, with music from The Beatles, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Hendrix, and others. Astronomy this week focuses on “Earth, Moon and Sun”: for third graders and up at 6 p.m. That’s followed by “Saturn: Jewel of the Heavens” at 7:30, and the Spooktacular at 9 p.m. (this week and next). The light show begins at 10 p.m. with music from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which you will remember was Roger Waters’ 1979 rock opera, and a mediation on conformity and isolation. Key lyrics: All in all it’s just another brick in the wall/ All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.The Wall goes well with laser lights,” Karon Von Ahnen told us. He’s the planetaraium director. “I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s the moody quality.” He added, “Astronomy shows have really changed. We used to have slide-based projectors and special effects proejctors. Now we have an all-domed video. It’s high resolution and covers the entire dome. It’s like Super IMAX and very immersive, very inspirational.”

For more information, go to the planetarium’s website.

Laser Light Show / Music by Pink Floyd: Oct. 20. 10 p.m., Fujitsu Planetarium, De Anza College, Cupertino, $9 (parking is $3), show lasts one hour.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

A Symphony Where Colors Come Alive for Kids

A Colorful SymphonyRobert Xavier Rodriguez’s short A Colorful Symphony is based on The Phantom Toll Booth, the 1961 novel by Norton Juster (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), about a boy named Milo who, one lazy afternoon, takes an imaginary drive through a toll booth to the Kingdom of Wisdom, across the Sea of Knowledge, where he has various adventures.

Rodriquez has recast the story as a journey to a land where sounds and colors are the same. And so it becomes a chance to learn about the properties of various musical instruments. Not to mention the music itself, which is sometimes compared to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This is another chance to bring small children to classical music.

A Colorful Symphony: Redwood Symphony, family Halloween concert with narration, Oct. 27, 3 p.m., Cañada College Main Theater, Redwood City, $10 to $25.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.