The night before the final orchestral concert of the 2023 Tanglewood season, a colleague told me she’d meet me there. “I might bring my daughter with me,” she added. It would the 7-year-old’s first time at Tanglewood, as well as her first encounter with Beethoven’s immortal Symphony No. 9, in full.
”We should picnic on the lawn, then,” I said. “Should I bring some sweets?”
”Maybe veggies and dip,” suggested my co-worker.
She wasn’t joking. I’ve never seen anyone, adult or child, go so gaga for baba ganoush as that kid did. Some children just love eating their vegetables, just like some love listening to classical music. But many others need to be enticed — I know I did.
Pushing a kid to listen to classical music (or to eat their vegetables) “because it’s good for you” will get you nowhere fast. But if you can convince a kid that listening to classical music can be fun, you’ve not only laid a foundation for them to appreciate it later in life; you’ve made their world just a little bigger, and you’ve given them another reason to spend time together with you.
There are a handful of pieces in the canon composed especially for children, most famously Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” I didn’t include these in this column because they’re already played frequently at concerts for families and young children. Notably, the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras do an annual “Peter and the Wolf” family concert, and this year’s is scheduled for Nov. 11 at Symphony Hall.
Here are a few alternate starting points.
BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO. 9 The “Ode to Joy” melody is probably on par with “Happy Birthday” when it comes to the most widely recognized tunes in the world. I don’t remember where I first heard it as a kid, only that I knew it when I heard it. The same was true for my colleague’s daughter, who thought she hadn’t heard Beethoven before but recognized the “Ode to Joy” refrain instantly when the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra played it at Tanglewood.
What’s more, Beethoven handily recaps the previous three movements at the beginning of the final movement, then seems to discard those old themes with a frustrated outburst before unfurling the “Ode to Joy.” There’s a little bit of everything in this symphony, and it never sounds the same for very long. Boston Baroque has three performances scheduled in October, including an Oct. 15 afternoon performance at Jordan Hall.
HOLST: THE PLANETS To get a kid interested in something new, it’s often a winning strategy to link the new thing to something they like already. There’s a reason the planetarium was always the field trip everyone liked the most when I was in elementary school: Kids love space. If they’ve seen “Star Wars,” pair “Mars, The Bringer of War” with John Williams’s “Imperial March” and ask them if they think the two pieces sound similar. Or just ask them what their favorite planet is — and hope it’s not Pluto.
Does your kid love the zoo? Try Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals.” Outdoorsy? Vivaldi, “The Four Seasons.” (If you can’t stand listening to the first movement of “Spring” again, start with the third movement of “Summer” or first of “Winter.”) Is art class their favorite? Try Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and don’t forget to show the drawings by Viktor Hartmann that inspired the piece.
GRIEG: MUSIC FOR PEER GYNT Henrik Ibsen’s original play usually runs upward of four hours long, which can be a hard sell for audiences of all ages. The good news: Grieg’s music has been condensed into two suites. The first, which features the oft-memed pair of “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” is probably the more appealing to children. Or this spring you could just take the kids to the BSO, where director Bill Barclay is staging a family-friendly, 75-minute condensed version of the play featuring actors from Concert Theatre Works and live accompaniment from the orchestra and conductor Dima Slobodeniouk (March 7-9).
WHAT’S THE BEST FIRST OPERA? Before you buy tickets, make sure that the kids in your life like, or at least tolerate, operatic singing; it can be a bit of an acquired taste. (Try “Largo al factotum,” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” or anything that you remember from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.) Once you know a kid is game to try it, think fairy tale, or at least fairy tale adjacent. “What’s going on?” is probably one of the most common questions any kid has about an opera, especially if they can’t understand what’s being sung, and they’re more likely to enjoy it if they know the story. American composer Seymour Barab (1921-2014) composed several charming short fairy tale operas for children, including a 40-minute “Little Red Riding Hood” that will be performed at New England Conservatory on Oct. 28 by graduate opera students.
If it’s time for something full length, there are two “Cinderella” adaptations in the canon: Massenet’s “Cendrillon,” and Rossini’s “Cenerentola,” which is coming soon to the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera (Nov. 8-12).
Beyond that, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” is an option, or even “The Barber of Seville,” which is essentially “Rapunzel” without the witch or the climbable hair. The save-the-princess plot of “The Magic Flute” is also pretty easy to follow, and Julie Taymor’s version at New York’s Metropolitan Opera has been such a hit with families that the company created a 100-minute version in English with no intermission, which now runs most years around Christmas. Just be ready to hear the kid’s best Queen of the Night impression for weeks afterward.
FOR THE GAMERS Repeat after me: Video game music is not a last resort, nor is it a “gateway drug” or anything that implies it’s less than music that’s composed for the concert hall. If it hadn’t been for the music of Nobuo Uematsu, Kumi Tanioka, Yoko Shimomura, and several other composers who worked on Square Enix’s long-running “Final Fantasy” franchise, I may never have warmed to classical music on my own terms. If you know a kid who always wants video games for birthdays and holidays, there’s a fighting chance they already like classical music but might not know it yet. The soundtracks of the “Final Fantasy” and “Legend of Zelda” franchises, “Journey,” and “Genshin Impact” (to name just a few) wear their classical influences proudly.
Two officially sanctioned “Final Fantasy” worldwide concert tours — the orchestral “Distant Worlds” and the smaller-scale “A New World” — have for years offered live performances of some of the franchise’s greatest hits and hidden gems. “Distant Worlds” packed the house for two performances at Symphony Hall last fall, and “A New World” passes through New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Sept. 29.
I’ll be there.