, Salem, MA

November 22, 2012

Symphony tells Babar the elephant's story

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — When Symphony by the Sea performs “The Story of Babar” this weekend, it should be a pleasure to listen to, in several senses.

“The story is sweet, and what makes this is Francis Poulenc’s music,” said Judith Black, the Marblehead-based storyteller who will read the popular children’s story.

For youngsters who spend too much time on computers or reacting to video games, the concert will also provide some healthy exercise to their imaginations.

“I will narrate a line, and there’s 36 bars of music. If you close your eyes, you can see it happening,” Black said. “When (children) sit there and imagine, they are using a tool that should never get rusty.”

Babar the elephant, who starting in 1931 was featured in a series of books by French author Jean De Brunhoff, was an elephant who left the forest and put on a suit, so he could dwell among human beings.

His story was set to music by French composer Poulenc in 1940, in a score that was originally intended for just a piano and a narrator.

“There are several orchestrations,” said Don Palma, conductor of Symphony by the Sea. “It’s a piece that captured people’s imagination, and they wanted to enlarge the venue, to bring it into a setting where you could play it in a concert hall.

“The one we’re doing is by a Dutchman, Bastiaan Blomhert, using more winds and brass and fewer strings,” he said. “It’s a beautiful setting to this very simply story.”

“The Story of Babar” will be the third in a series of performances, each exploring a different form of narrative.

“The whole concept of the program is: music that tells stories,” Palma said.

The first piece will be an instrumental, showcasing the ways an orchestra can tell a story on its own, purely through sound.

Palma is keeping the title a secret, because it would reveal too much about how the orchestra operates, when it tells a story in this composition.

Black will follow, showcasing the ways an unaccompanied human voice can not only tell a story with words, but also through its dramatic ability to create moods and imitate sounds.

In addition, the program will feature Mozart’s overture to the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and his playful composition called “The Musical Joke.”

“He was a great jokester,” Palma said.

An added attraction for the youngest audience members, who are encouraged to bring their favorite stuffed animal, will be a celebration of teddy bears.

This program’s mixture of fiction and fun, pleasure and instruction for all ages is part of Symphony by the Sea’s attempt to broaden its appeal.

“Ages ago, Symphony by the Sea had family concerts,” said Matt Sagal, a member of the symphony’s board. “We have a tradition of educating kids in family concerts in the past. Last year, we decided to start again.”

Sagal’s son Peter, who hosts the humorous radio quiz show “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” on National Public Radio, revived the series last year.

“It was a huge success,” Matt Sagal said, bringing more than 600 people to Abbot Hall to hear his son narrate another famous children’s story, “Peter and the Wolf,” which was set to music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

“Peter was a tough act to follow, but Judith Black is a known quantity to families on the North Shore, and we’re happy to have her,” Sagal said. “Everyone should have a great time.”

In addition to concerts for the whole family, the season will also include a program of romantic music on Valentine’s Day and has already featured an opera night.

“It was a huge success; people walked out stunned,” Sagal said. “We’re diversifying our programming.”

If you go

What: Symphony by the Sea’s “A Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” plus “The Story of Babar,” narrated to music by Francis Poulenc

When and where: Tomorrow at Newburyport City Hall and Saturday at Abbot Hall, 188 Washington St., Marblehead. Both concerts at 3 p.m.

More information: Tickets $20 for adults and $10 for children at and at the venue on day of the concert. Also at Arnould Gallery in Marblehead and The Book Rack in Newburyport. Children are invited to bring a stuffed animal to celebrate the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” and families are also invited to bring a new unwrapped stuffed animal to donate to Toys for Tots.