Ambassador of Music

Classic Arts Features   Ambassador of Music
Rob Kapilow's Family Musik series at Lincoln Center is back for a second extraordinary season. The fun gets underway with "Carnival of the Animals" on December 3.

Rob Kapilow's not just in it for the fan mail, but the feedback has been pretty fantastic all the same. "I really enjoyed your session," a 12-year-old declared after one of Kapilow's family concerts. "I think you're better than Britney Spears."

Heady stuff, but Kapilow‹composer, conductor, and host to some of the liveliest concerts Lincoln Center has ever seen‹wouldn't have it any other way. "Kids literally dance in the aisles," he says proudly of his Family Musik series. "They have a whole different energy‹which is the point of this series."

Family Musik, made up of three interactive, classically inclined, and completely child-friendly programs, starts its second season at Alice Tully Hall next month. By all accounts, it seems to be a well-deserved encore.

"The response last year was fantastic," says Vice President of Programming Jane S. Moss. "We get a lot of repeat attendees, which is the ultimate feedback. And we also see the phenomenon of grandparents bringing their grandchildren."

In Boston, where Kapilow's family concerts began a decade ago, he's watched the youngsters in the audience actually grow up before his eyes. "I'd meet them at age five, and they'd come back to the series year after year," he marvels.

What they would hear was music ranging from the classics to brand new pieces by Kapilow himself. His version of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, which premiered in 1995, has been called the most popular children's work since Peter and the Wolf. Then again, as Kapilow is quick to point out, "Green Eggs is probably the only opera libretto every kid already knows by heart!"

The baby-faced Yale graduate, a father of three, likes to relate what he calls one of the "key moments" in his life: the time his seven-year-old came home from school one day crying, "Daddy, daddy, you can't be a composer. You're not dead!" Out came the score paper.

"I wanted people to get a sense that this thing called 'composing,' or music, is not something that's mysteriously so far away from them, that only dead geniuses could have done it," Kapilow explains. Nor does he want anyone to believe that anything by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms should be considered "stuffy" or music for the elite. During his trips around the country, often in conjunction with his widely acclaimed What Makes It Great? presentations, Kapilow goes on local call-in radio shows and offers free concert tickets to the person who, as he puts it fondly, "hates classical music the most."

He says that callers often tell him the same, horrible experiences: how, as children, they were scolded for clapping in the wrong place or were told to sit still and shut up.

"All those early, terrible experiences," Kapilow muses, "and they stay with people so long! Beginnings are everything." (That last, by the way, is the title of the first chapter of the book he's writing with Michael Korda, who also edited Leonard Bernstein.)

To make sure those beginnings are sweet, Kapilow‹just as Bernstein did for his legendary Young People's Concerts‹surrounds himself with top-notch artists who enjoy performing for children as much as he does. Kapilow's family of players include soprano Sherry Boone, stage directors Daniel Pelzig and Gabriel Barre, and dancer Seán Curran, whom Kapilow had seen performing in the off-Broadway hit Stomp.

"I consider myself a pretty energetic person," says Curran, one of the dance world's most robust performers. "But Rob has probably triple the energy I have. Being on stage with him is like plugging into some tremendous music and kinetic energy source."

The new Family Musik season kicks off on December 3 with a performance of Carnival of the Animals, featuring Boone, baritone Jonathan Hays, and the Family Musik Chamber Ensemble. Together they'll bring Saint-Saëns' brilliant animal portraits to life‹graceful swan, plodding pachyderm, et al. Also on the December 3 bill is Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, in which the audience will be asked to provide both the buzz and the sting: humming a passage, singing it, clapping it, even tapping it.

The program will conclude with Kapilow's And Furthermore They Bite!, featuring animal poems by such greats as Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, and John Gardner, author of the title piece:

Always be kind to animals
Morning, noon and night
For animals have feelings, too
And furthermore, they bite.

Throughout the performance, Kapilow will break things down, playing passages faster, slower, louder, and softer, so that everyone can hear the difference. "That way they think, 'I can get this,'" he explains. "It isn't a foreign language. It's like someone who's watched baseball enough and can appreciate a double play, smoothly turned."

Smooth turns are on the bill at the second Family Musik concert on February 4, starring Curran and six members of his dance company who will be accompanied by Kapilow and Judith Gordon on dueling pianos. The music will range from Brahms to Copland and the theme, Kapilow says, is "you can make a dance from anything."

Expect rhumbas and marches, Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, a Stravinsky polka, and a piece by Ricky Ian Gordon called Ring a Ding Ding. Children and parents will be invited onstage to see just how gracefully (or not) they can walk through a hoop. Curran and his dancers will go on next, demonstrating the elegant, sophisticated ways that one can make an entrance to a Brahms waltz.

The series concludes March 4 with a program titled "The Four Seasons," featuring music by Vivaldi and Kapilow, and sung by the award-winning New York City's Young People's Chorus.

That final concert, Kapilow promises, has everything: dance, mime, puppetry, even a surprise celebrity guest reader.

"Sounds like fun, doesn't it?" he says, laughing. "It's Lincoln Center's way of saying, 'This is our world, come on in.'" And go ahead and clap whenever you feel like it.

Barbara Hoffman, violinist and writer, edits the Family Pages in the New York Post.

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