Take heart, parents: There’s more kid-friendly music out there than “Baby Shark.”
This Saturday, May 11, several members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will head to the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Southeast Anchor Branch in Highlandtown to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” a classic among pieces written specifically for children.
The accompanying narration will be performed in both English and Spanish by children’s librarians in an effort to embrace Highlandtown’s growing Hispanic population. Children’s librarians Paula Willey will give the English narration and Kelsey Harper the Spanish.
“We want everyone there to be comfortable,” said Michael Lisicky, oboist and Community Outreach Organizer for the Baltimore Symphony Musicians, an independently organized collective of performers with the BSO; this concert and others put on by the organization are not official BSO productions. “But in the end, all the kids really want to do is see the instruments up close. If they hear a story out of it, that’s almost a perk."
Along with creations like Disney’s “Fantasia” and Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” “Peter and the Wolf” occupies a special place in classical repertoire as a work specifically designed to familiarize children with the instruments of the Western symphony orchestra; it also teaches them to interpret personality and drama within a given musical phrase.
Each character has its corresponding instrument: The duck is the oboe, the cat the clarinet and so on. Along with the narrator, the instruments tell the story of Peter, a young boy who ignores his grandfather’s request to stay away from a local wolf. Instead, Peter sets out to capture the wolf himself.
Commissioned by Moscow’s Central Children’s Theater in 1936, the work was originally to be interpreted as a morality play between the young Communist party (embodied by Peter) and the older, more set-in-their-ways generation (symbolized by Peter’s grandfather).
However, the work easily transcended its propagandist message; with its U.S. premiere in 1939 by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it began to make the rounds among symphonies on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Over the past nine decades, the narrator’s role has been taken up by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein and David Bowie.
Saturday’s performance is a slightly abridged version, with the music arranged for woodwind quintet: an arrangement, Lisicky acknowledged, better suited to the “all elbows” environment of a library.
For Lisicky, library performances and others that see musicians more closely integrated with their audiences — as opposed to the removed nature of a formal stage — are part of the draw of concerts put on by the Baltimore Symphony Musicians. The latter is run through the players’ committee of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and organizes concerts in which symphony musicians take part as volunteers.
“We get out in the public,” said Lisicky. “A few years ago [we asked ourselves], ‘Who are we? What do we do?’ Of course, we’re the people that you see on stage, but what do we do in the community? We couldn’t really define it.”
To address this, orchestra musicians began putting on chamber music concerts in the greater Baltimore area. Many of the concerts are planned well ahead of time, such as the “Peter and the Wolf” performance, but the self-organized nature of the group also allows them to respond to community happenings. Shortly after the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Symphony Musicians performed in Penn North, “at the epicenter of … most of the confrontation,” said Lisicky. “We went there three times because we wanted to show a commitment.”
After the shooting at the Capital Gazette in June of last year, the musicians organized to play at the official memorial for the five slain journalists. “That means a lot to us,” said Lisicky. “We all need each other.”
Lisicky remembered the lockdown of Harlem Park after the death of Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter in 2017. “When they reopened it, the first thing we did was contact Harlem Park Elementary, and we [played for] the kindergarten class. We can’t change the world with these programs. But if I can get a smile on these kids’ faces for half an hour, then that’s something.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.