Attuned to Young at Art

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When orchestras commission new works for children's concerts, the results are often cutesy, pandering or forced. Happily, Michael Daugherty and Anne Carson's "Troyjam," presented by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, is, instead, something you see all too seldom: a piece of quality work, with strong music and beautiful language, conceived for children. Whether it will actually appeal to children is another question, but one hopes that other orchestras will pick it up and give everyone a chance to find out.

The strength begins with the libretto by Anne Carson, a gifted poet who has created here a luminous assemblage of words. The piece depicts a Trojan War fought with instruments rather than weapons. Most children today may not know what the Trojan War is, and some of Carson's language is almost certainly over their heads ("Another empty evening slumps against the wall of Achilles' heart . . . Night is gristle. He chews it, he ponders. Who will ever end this stupid war if he does not?" or "All the flutes on Hektor's back are picking up the tune, as if a bunch of gods with tiny silver lips were loose inside his quiver"). But the story is reasonably clear, and I would argue, possibly impractically, that exposing children to words of this caliber is a good thing.

Daugherty's music sets lines equally clear and strong, delivered in small doses that leave you wanting more, highlighting the different sections of the orchestra without being for a moment didactic. It is not an inconsiderable feat to create small fragments of music that are catchy and illustrative without smacking of a cartoon soundtrack; Daugherty creates a couple of strong themes, builds the piece around them, and then lets the orchestra have its head, all too briefly, in a narration-free sequence of no more than a few minutes at the end.

The concert as a whole was designed to introduce kids to the various sections of the orchestra, with the help of Mike Rowe, the host of the TV show "Dirty Jobs," who between numbers went among the players to talk about the dirty aspects of what they did (Violinists use hair from a horse's bottom! The brass release spit from their valves!). However, the jokes were not necessarily clear enough for kids to understand them; it was never explained, for example, that horsehair is a component of a violin bow, so the humor went right over some small heads.

The intervening musical selections were actually well chosen, starting with the rousing "Candide" overture and continuing with a Tchaikovsky waltz (strings), a Gabrieli excerpt (brass), the well-known "Chorale St. Antoni" that is probably not actually by Haydn (woodwinds), and part of Ch¿vez's Toccata for Percussion Instruments. Presumably by the second show, at 3 p.m., the orchestra had gotten the pieces into its fingers; the 1 p.m. show smacked of a rehearsal, particularly the Candide overture, which was pretty much a mess.

Still, the whole thing seemed to me generally better conceived than many such programs. To find out how it would go over with actual kids, I attended with a control group composed of two young ladies, Lincoln and Maine Curtis, aged 7.

Lincoln and Maine, alas, were singularly unimpressed with the whole thing. Maine was glad to see the "Dirty Jobs" guy, since she is a fan of the show, but Lincoln observed that orchestra playing is not, in fact, a dirty job, whatever the conceit of the program. As for "Troyjam": "I wasn't really paying attention," Lincoln said.

Real kids are a tough audience. Nonetheless, I hope more of them get to hear "Troyjam."

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