Earlier this week, my son turned nine, and I have been wondering if the time might be right for him to start accompanying my wife and me to the symphony. We’ve taken him to plenty of Kennedy Center children’s concerts in the past, performances we’ve all enjoyed, but I have been eagerly awaiting the day when I can finally introduce him to the real thing. After all, a 45-minute program made up of short, catchy tunes is a world away from a full-length program consisting of overture, concerto, and four-movement symphony.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town, where the concerts my parents took me to, all under the auspices of the local university, tended to be poor in quality, if earnest. Not until I was 12 or so, in the mid-1980s, did I attend my first proper concert. We traveled a few hours north to hear the St. Louis Symphony, with Isaac Stern, subbing for an ailing Itzhak Perlman, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto. (I remember having a nasty cold that night, and that another piece on the program, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, loud and frenetic, provided more than a few opportunities for a surreptitious cough and muffled sneeze.) Growing up in Washington, however, with two fine orchestras nearby, an opera company, and any number of choruses, chamber ensembles, and solo recital venues, my son will have far more opportunities than I did to experience classical music played at the highest level.
I have always hoped that my son would inherit from me a love of music that might last him a lifetime, whether he chooses to play an instrument or not. I have tried, with this in mind, to fill the house with as much music as possible. Even as a baby, he could listen to the C Major Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the opening to Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 331, and the beginning of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 90—via the mobile that hung above his crib. That sonata of Beethoven’s turned out to be the first piece he recognized and asked for, at a time when he was barely able to talk. Later, he would happily stomp around the living-room coffee table whenever the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique came on. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf enchanted him for a while, as did Ravel’s Bolero—though I hoped he’d one day outgrow that piece, the way most kids eventually abandon ketchup. For a while, his favorite music was the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony. I showed him DVDs of Oliver Knussen’s brilliant one-act opera Where the Wild Things Are and of The Magic Flute. (Recent interpretations of Mozart’s singspiel tend to play up its fantastical elements at the expense of its more serious symbolism and ideas, but these bewitching effects are precisely what make the work so enchanting to children.) Although my son hasn’t expressed an interest in playing an instrument, other than the requisite, school-issued recorder, the other day I did hear him humming both the Toreador’s Song from Bizet’s Carmen and the choral theme from Beethoven’s Ninth. In this sense, I feel that I haven’t failed.
Now, I’m quite certain he’s not ready to sit through the entirety of Mahler’s Second or Bruckner’s Eighth. Yet in an earlier age, children had better attention spans than they seemingly do now. There’s a wonderful DVD of a performance from the 1982 Salzburg Festival called Die Zauberflöte für Kinder, or, The Magic Flute for Children. Every summer, from 1978 to 1986, the director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle staged The Magic Flute at the Felsenreitschule (Salzburg’s former Summer Riding School, converted into a theater in the early 20th century). The cast from that summer’s production appears here, along with a casually attired Vienna Philharmonic and a youthful-looking James Levine, clad in his standard rehearsal outfit of blue polo shirt and dark red bath towel draped over his shoulder. The baritone Christian Boesch, a much-heralded Papageno at the time, is the star, explaining to a theater full of well-dressed, enraptured children just what a wonderful thing The Magic Flute is. What’s this opera all about? he asks. How does Mozart convey emotion through music? Why do singers and instrumentalists get such a thrill from performing a masterpiece such as this? Much of the opera is presented, interrupted only by Boesch’s witty explanations, with a bit of slapstick thrown in, too: at one point, Levine halts Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” to scold Boesch for rendering the song like a bombastic drunk: sing with more tenderness, the conductor implores him; sing with more love in your voice. The children seem to eat it up. Some of them will have also understood an important point about phrasing and interpretation. If only a few of them departed the Felsenreitschule with an appreciation for opera, Boesch and his colleagues would have done their job. Indeed, he says as much at the conclusion of the show.
To open a door into a seemingly forbidding world, to conjure a bit of musical magic, was Leonard Bernstein’s mission, too. Shortly after taking over as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, Bernstein began his Young People’s Concerts—a truly amazing series of instructional performances. Charming and erudite, Bernstein displayed not a bit of condescension—he treated those little boys and girls dressed in their suits and dresses with such respect, as if they were more than capable of getting to the heart of the great scores of Western music, if only they listened carefully and put their minds to the task before them. He was a symphonic Pied Piper, leading his young disciples (not merely those who attended the concerts but also those watching at home on CBS) into the wondrous worlds of Brahms and Sibelius, Berlioz and Mahler. He showed them what a concerto is, and what constitutes sonata form. It’s remarkable to see how quiet and well-behaved those young audiences were. Would the children of our time have the attention spans to sit so still and listen so intently? Yes, I hear my son humming Beethoven, but I also see him distracted by multiple devices, all those digital siren calls luring him in so many disjointed directions. In this respect, however, I fear that I’m not much better.
The irony is that an abiding love of classical music can be cultivated with just those same devices. I can show my son DVDs of The Magic Flute for Children or the Bernstein Young People’s Concerts. I have digital subscriptions to the Berlin Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, allowing us to watch both live and archived performances on my iPad. And yet, nothing compares to the experience of a live performance. To participate as a listener in the act of music making, to hold one’s breath as an orchestra whispers an otherworldly pianissimo, to feel one’s pulse race as you watch a violinist perform some daredevil stunt, to have waves of emotion wash over you as you witness Mahler or Mozart or Schoenberg for the first or the 50th time, to see a hundred musicians sweat upon the stage as they touch the heart of the music they’re interpreting, to feel yourself part of a great swelling ovation when it’s all over—once you’ve acquired a taste for that, nothing else will ever do.