NSO's 'Firebird' Pitched Perfectly for Youngsters

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On an afternoon so hot that the Washington outdoors could only be endured, not enjoyed, it was such a pleasure to slip into the reliably clement Kennedy Center Concert Hall that the program itself seemed almost a bonus.

Sunday was the finale for the National Symphony Orchestra's family season -- a series of events that strive to creatively combine music and education -- and Emil de Cou, the NSO's associate conductor, led a lively program devoted to Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite."

De Cou started off by having the orchestra play selections from music that preceded and may have influenced Stravinsky's 1910 ballet: an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" and another from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." And then, as he promised, the music "went from Technicolor to Imax" as he led the orchestra through some key moments from "Firebird" to acquaint the children and parents who made up most of the audience with what they were about to hear. (I liked de Cou's comparison of some of the more dissonant harmonies -- "like you're pounding your fists on a piano.") After that, the NSO played the entire suite.

A large television screen permitted close-ups of the musicians as they played -- old-timers might be reminded of Leonard Bernstein's nationally televised Young People's Concerts from the 1950s and '60s -- interspersed with occasional drawings illustrating the tale of Prince Ivan and Princess Vasilisa, the heroes of the ballet. The performance was alternately darkly mysterious and brilliantly bright, as the score demands, with some particularly nice work from solo oboe, clarinet, bassoon and the assembled brass. De Cou made a genial host and led with authority.

These concerts are among the most important things the NSO does for the people of the Washington area. With musical education in our schools generally at such a low level, children must learn about the classical literature elsewhere (and, believe it or not, most Stravinsky is now considered too "difficult" for our FM stations). The youngsters were mostly alert and polite (some quieter than others, to be sure) and the hour passed very pleasantly. And who can tell what sparks of deeper interest this "Firebird" may have kindled?

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