NOBODY LIKES birthdays more than kids. The National Symphony Orchestra, which is turning 75 this season, is celebrating the occasion with several children's concerts based on the theme "Stories in Music."
As part of its plan to bring into a concert setting well-known, well-loved children's tales, the NSO captured the attention of preschoolers last Sunday with its first "Tunes 'n' Tales" Teddy Bear Concert.
Children, clutching their favorite stuffed animals, lined up early with their parents for the sold-out affair in the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab. (Another "Tunes 'n' Tales" program for 3- to 5-year-olds will be Jan. 7.) NSO harpist Dotian Levalier and NSO violinist Marissa Regni invited youngsters to introduce their stuffed toys and have them clap along to the music. My son, Charlie, brought Lambie.
In a lively, 45-minute program, he (and Lambie) heard Levalier read "The Story of Ferdinand" to Regni's accompaniment, examined a miniature violin for children and sang along to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Charlie was so fascinated by the different effects Regni produced on her violin that he didn't even notice he'd missed his chance to sit onstage.
Through this unstuffy, interactive setting, NSO Executive Director Rita Shapiro said, "even very young children can learn to listen."
Levalier said she shares this enthusiasm for her young fans. "By the time they're 10 years old, it's too late," she said, to catch their interest.
Inspiration for the Teddy Bear Concerts came when a member of the orchestra's artistic staff saw a similar performance in Cologne, Germany, Shapiro said.
NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin, who conceived the "Stories in Music" theme, hopes to use music both to stimulate kids' imaginations and to educate, she said.
Over the coming weeks and months, young concertgoers through middle school age will have several more opportunities to hear live classical music. Most of the family concerts last one hour or less, being designed to minimize antsiness in listeners.
On Saturday, children 4 and older can check out an NSO Kinderkonzert titled "Brought to You by the Letter B." The Theater Lab concert will feature music by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
On Sunday, in the Theater Lab, an NSO Ensemble Concert designed for ages 9 and older, "Connections: History and Music," will use music and other media to explore surprising links throughout history.
The 5-and-older crowd will fill the Terrace Theater on Nov. 26 and 27 when the NSO Woodwind Quintet performs Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" for another Kinderkonzert.
And on Nov. 20, Slatkin will conduct this season's first NSO Family Concert: "Rip Van Winkle and Other Musical Tales," the premiere of an NSO commission based on the Washington Irving tale, by Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici. Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will narrate. Set in the Concert Hall, this program is intended for children 7 and older.
And for ages 9 and older, on Jan. 8 in the new Family Theater, "Connections: Science and Music" will examine the light that music can shed on biology, chemistry and astronomy.
In all the family programs, child-oriented touches abound. "Cuesheets," a kids' playbill, contain fun, accessible information -- including symbols for kids who can't read yet -- about each show's music, composers and instruments. Many events include a pre-show "Petting Zoo" in which kids can see up close and touch the instruments they're about to hear. And 3 p.m. performances conclude with post-concert "Kids' Chats" led by the conductor.
"Our orchestra loves the family concerts," Shapiro said, because most of the performers are parents themselves, and they enjoy the enthusiasm, energy and immediate feedback that young audiences supply.
NSO FAMILY AND TEDDY BEAR CONCERTS -- Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324. www.kennedy-center.org. Performance times vary. Most tickets are $15.