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Sing-Along Concerts: Music for all Ages ... and Animals

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra

Feb. 8 and 9

Piedmont East Bay Children's ChoirIf there were a Gault Millau of children's musical concerts, some observers say, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's family concert programs might sport a musical notation equivalent of the esteemed French restaurant guide's rating of Five Toques.

Free admission, child-friendly venues, and lots of back and forth between musicians and kids during a performance make the concerts a win-win proposition for families, according to the orchestra's music director and conductor Benjamin Simon.

"There's no reason to go anywhere else," said Simon with the enthusiasm a five-star chef might invoke. "I think our family concerts are the creative introduction for young people to classical music in the Bay Area."

Animals are the theme of the orchestra's second family concert this season. The performances at three Bay Area locations offer something for children of all ages, according Simon.

The upcoming concerts, starting Feb. 8, mark the fourth collaboration between the young singers of the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir and the orchestra. Soprano Shawnette Sulker will round out the program with some classical arias, and songs about animals — new and old favorites. From buzzing insects in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee and cheery bluebird calls in Somewhere Over the Rainbow to mooing cows in Old McDonald Had a Farm, the program is sure to delight audiences, said Simon.

Shawnette Sulker"We try to make each concert engaging and as educational as possible," said Simon, who is also a violist with other musical groups. "It's very nice to have the adults on stage as a focus for the singing parts; I think having the choir and a singer is a good combination for the kids." Children will be able to play with cardboard cutouts of animals placed on each venue's stage.

The orchestra's executive director Kristen Steiner agrees the combination of a singer and a choir is effective not only for the family concerts but for the orchestra's Young Partners in Performance program. "We bring in young performers to play side-by-side with the orchestra and it puts forth a really great example for our young audiences," she said. "It's sort of a visual reminder that music is for all ages."

Steiner, who became the orchestra's executive director in July 2013, said there has been an increase in donations to the group. She credited the orchestra's recent decision to provide paper programs at concerts to raising awareness of the music organization's financial needs. "It's already tremendously helped our fund-raising," she said.

The orchestra's family concerts continue to draw audiences in spite of competing events geared toward children around the Bay Area. Free admission is one factor, said Steiner: "It's surprising to folks that there's no requirement to pay. We also have a pretty established fan base. And it's really hard these days to find something free for that age group."

SFCOThe concert run time without intermission continues to be a boon for parents. "The 45-minute performance is good," said Steiner. "It's the perfect length, we've been told by all of the parents who come through."

When parents discover us," she continued, "they always come back. We're considered a gem in the Bay Area."

Journalist Molly Colin writes about the arts and cultural trends.