The very last Sunday of the Christmas holidays was an auspicious date to stage a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Working parents keen to give their kiddies a memorable musical experience treated their “smalls” to it before returning to the grind; dozens of grandparents relished taking their grandchildren to the striking Tonhalle venue. The story of naughty Peter who sneaks out of his grandfather’s house and is confronted by a “big grey wolf” is also attractive to any kid with a flair for drama. So not surprisingly, this Peter, performed by the Romanian State Orchestra under Michael Zukernik, drew a large audience.

Michael Zukernik © Michael Zukernik
Michael Zukernik
© Michael Zukernik

Intrigued by the invitation to compose a piece that would cultivate "musical tastes in children from the first years of school", Prokofiev completed Peter and the Wolf in just four days before its debut in 1936. Each of the characters is thematically represented by a different instrument, making it easier for kids to pick up the narrative. Theo, the little boy next to me at the Tonhalle, was full of enthusiasm when we sat down. Some of the parents no less so: Narrator Joel Basman − the handsome young Zürcher who enjoys a sterling reputation as a film actor in Europe − came onto the stage to great applause, the 40 players of the orchestra already in their places behind him. But within moments of conductor raising his baton, it was clear that something was wrong. Basman began the story, but the head-mike he was using broke into a triple echo that made every word he said close to unintelligible. I caught snatches of “tree” (Baum) and “bird” (Vogel) at least a dozen times, but little else, and that from as close as the fifteenth row of some thirty in the stalls. We hoped it might be corrected, but no such luck.

Projecting with a faulty audio transmission system to any audience is a challenge, but to do so to an audience of around 300 restless youngsters magnifies the test tenfold. To cite the text: “Suppose a wolf came out of the forest? What then?” Basman carried on like a trooper, often standing stoically as he faced an audience that progressively gave up on the garbled story. And if the musicians paled and lost momentum, it was probably because there could be little spark between them and the narration itself. Further, rather than pick up his cues seamlessly, the conductor took substantial pauses after any spoken words, such that the orchestra seemed to tag along somewhat clumsily. The exceptions were three of the soli: the clarinet (the cat), the flute (the bird), and the oboe (the duck), who were all just superb and spot on.

Perhaps the greatest irony was the Tonhalle is world renowned for its superb acoustics, as appeared in black-and-white in the evening’s programme. Fortunately, the fix was an easy one. After the break, Basman used a hand-mike that worked perfectly throughout Francis Poulenc’s endearing Story of Babar, the Little Elephant. For a highly diverse cast of characters, the actor gave terrifically convincing voices, including Babar’s lovely, if ill-fated, elephant mother; the wealthy old lady who adopts Babar in the city; and Cornelius, the elephant elder who suggests Babar become king.

Poulenc originally wrote Babar for piano in 1940-1945, dedicating it to the children of close relatives. The work was pioneering for its time in that it incorporated elements of “charming vulgarity” and a modern genre fostered by the young group of composers known as “Les Six”. Yet it also includes moments that range as far as from sheer Romanticism to Parisian city street noise. Adapted for orchestra in 1962, it also includes some clever humour, particularly the old matron who “gives (Babar) everything he wants” and the sheer ease with which Babar choses his mate, Celeste. Here too, and with all systems go, the players seemed more comfortable and came into their own.

A ferocious wolf and a personable elephant are two highly disparate characters and temperaments that, in the hands of the Russian Prokofiev and Parisian Poulenc, have tremendous appeal to youngsters. Not withstanding the antics of cell-phone video-making, loud banter and even occasional tears, a children’s concert will, of course, always be “a different kind of animal. But I can think of no way to enthuse kids more for the magic of music that to stage one, provided the sound system plays along.