Storytelling is a great way to introduce children to the world of classical music. When I was teaching, Peter and the Wolf was an obvious candidate (for excellent reasons), but anything programmatic could do the trick, anything that paints a musical picture in the mind. A favourite resource was James Mayhew’s enchantingly illustrated book Koshka’s Tales – a collection of Russian stories that had inspired Russian composers – which encouraged musical explorations and, in turn, creative artistic responses to the music they heard. I still own a tea-tray with a fabulous Firebird painted onto it by a pupil.

Catherine Meurisse
© Orchestre de Paris

Mayhew has gone on to present many of these stories in family concerts, painting the pictures as the music plays. Something like this was doubtless the aim of this Orchestre de Paris “family concert” scheduled at the Philharmonie last December. Bring the children along for a 45-minute performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, illustrated – live – by Catherine Meurisse. Except national lockdown meant that no audience – young or not so young – was permitted. This belated stream is the result.

Prince Ivan seizes the Firebird
© Orchestre de Paris

Things got off to an un-atmospheric start, Hungarian conductor Gábor Káli propelling the double basses into a breezy walk into Kastchei’s garden while the only illustrations were prepared backdrops. But suddenly, a tree appears, with golden apples growing on its branches. And then out pops a bright crest, a beak and extravagant tail feathers: our title character has arrived, pilfering an apple.

It’s only at the Dance of the Firebird that we see Meurisse in action – working at a desk above the orchestra and illuminated by a table lamp – painting Prince Ivan trying to capture the Firebird, seizing a burning feather. Wristy flicks of the brush reflect the skittish music. Paint bleeds into washes, cartoon princesses frolic, charcoal is scuffed across the page to form the stone guardians of the evil sorcerer’s palace. The noble horn theme and general rejoicing of the finale result in a charming image of Ivan and his princess watching the firebird fly off, their palace in the distance.

Gábor Káli conducts the Orchestre de Paris
© Orchestre de Paris

In the hall, I can imagine children being enraptured, eyes glued to the large monitor above the stage. The video direction, however, pulls away from the artist too often, determined to find ever more angles from which to film the orchestra. Would children have followed the thread of the story here? Without any narration, I’m not sure. The playing is very fine though, with the woodwinds displaying their avian finery, a beautifully somnolent bassoon in the Berceuse, and three cheers to the percussionist rattling his way nimbly through the busy xylophone figures leading up to the Infernal Dance (for which dry ice was released into the hall). Káli builds a persuasive finale and he and Meurisse exchange baton and brush in a neat curtain call.


This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonie de Paris' video stream

Watch the video here
***11