Classical ‘kids’ review: That madman really does live upstairs!

beethovenHow do you hook your kids on classical music?

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s Pied Piper Children’s Series is an excellent place to start. On Saturday morning, hundreds of kids and their parents flocked to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where they were introduced to the extraordinary life and music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

beethovenstairsThe occasion was a performance of Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a theatrical symphony concert based on the popular Classical Kids audio recording. The story is told through an entertaining exchange of letters between a young Viennese boy named Christoph and his uncle. A pair of actors told the tale while the NSO played the music.

The plot was simple and appealing: A wildly eccentric tenant named Ludwig van Beethoven has moved into an upstairs apartment in Christoph’s house. Old Ludwig stomps loudly on the floor, plays piano and sings tunes at all hours of the day and night. This impossible old man is uncouth, rude and a slob. Christoph is mortified to be living with him.

As the story unfolds, we learn from Christoph’s uncle, a Salzburg music student, that Beethoven is a hero. He acts strangely because he’s gone deaf – a horrible affliction for a composer. What keeps the old man going is his mission to write music for the ages.

On Saturday, actors Andrew Redlawsk (Christoph) and Thad Avery (Uncle) delivered larger-than-life, thoroughly entertaining performances. Redlawsk’s voice quivered with embarrassment as he recounted Beethoven’s strange antics, like standing in front of a window in the nude while studying a score. Avery proved to be an effective apologist for the composer, explaining his behavior while introducing the music.

What makes Beethoven Lives Upstairs great, of course, is the music, and on Saturday conductor Kelly Corcoran and the NSO performed some of the composer’s greatest hits with a healthy mix of charm and drama.

In his day, Beethoven had been a famous piano virtuoso, so it came as no surprise that the NSO’s principal keyboard player Robert Marler had to do much of the heavy lifting. Naturally, he performed excerpts of the familiar keyboard hits – Für Elise, Minuet in G, Moonlight Sonata. But he also sampled virtuoso fare, such as music from the First Piano Concerto and Spring Sonata (with concertmaster Jun Iwasaki). He played it all with polish and lyrical flair.

Corcoran and the NSO, for their parts, were equally successful in music from the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies.

So what did the kids think? My 7-year-old Austin, a budding concert pianist and Beethoven fanatic, declared everything to be “awesome.” My 10-year-old Jonah, a video-game virtuoso, was pleased but less euphoric. “The music was good,” he said. “But the actors paused too much when they did their lines.” Apparently, video gamers like to keep things moving. The preschooler sitting next to us had no reservations. Between performances, he happily chirped “BEE-toe-fen, BEE-toe-fen.”

The next Pied Piper concert will be 11 a.m. Saturday, April 13 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. That performance, titled “Under the Sea,” will feature Corcoran and the NSO playing music from Debussy’s La Mer, Handel’s Water Music, The Little Mermaid and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Like the Beethoven performance, “Under the Sea” will feature such pre-show entertainment as crafts, stories and an instrument petting zoo. Click here for tickets and additional information.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.