We all know what it’s like to have a neighbour who plays their music too loud – but imagine if your neighbour was Ludwig van Beethoven, battling his impending deafness while banging out one musical theme after another on the piano?
That’s the premise of Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a musical skit from the Chicago-based music education group Classical Kids Live!, the latest collaboration in the SSO’s Concerts for Children series which attempts to give kids a better understanding of classical music, often by hosting international family-friendly performance groups.
The play centres on young Christoph in 19th-century Vienna, who’s kept awake at night by the bad-tempered, foul-mouthed ‘madman’ who just moved into an apartment upstairs. He complains to his uncle in a series of letters, which are accompanied by excerpts of Beethoven’s music, and slowly, through his correspondence and his uncle’s explanations, comes to understand and appreciate the noise from above.
The aim, of course, is to educate children about the beauty of classical music, not just for its beautiful melodies but also for its rich history and the often tempestuous real-life drama that surrounded its making. The cast of actors re-creates the environment and situations that led to the creation of these timeless pieces, as seen through the eyes of a child.
‘The philosophy behind Classical Kids Live! is that children will embrace classical music when accompanied by storytelling,’ says company director Paul Pement. ‘The music is woven into the drama, as two actors share their anecdotes and observations based on true incidents from the composer’s life. We find that children respond to the narrative differently when it is accompanied by music.’
That philosophy is echoed by the SSO and their kid-friendly programmes, which includes annual events such as the Babies’ Proms with UK conductor Peter Moore – now in its tenth year – as well as their Concerts for Children series. ‘As Singapore’s only professional orchestra, it is important that the SSO offers something that will be palatable to the little ones, and in a style far-removed from the usual concert-hall setting,’ says SSO associate conductor Darrell Ang. For Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a chamber-sized orchestra, led by Ang, will accompany the Classical Kids Live! performance group – a formula that was similarly used for the March concert of Peter and the Wolf alongside Seattle’s Magic Circle Mime Company.
The stories of Classical Kids Live! are adapted from the popular and award-winning Classical Kids audio series, of which Beethoven Lives Upstairs is a bestseller (the group have performed titles based around Mozart, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky). ‘Although the character of Beethoven never makes an appearance,’ says Pement, ‘the powerful combination of music and narrative… allows audiences to not only learn about Beethoven’s life, but also be inspired by his most famous masterpieces.’
Pement points to a highlight in the Beethoven programme, the ‘Pathétique’ piano sonata, which is being presented in an unusual way. ‘It’s being played against dialogue that was written and timed to the phrasing of that particular excerpt,’ he says. ‘During this piece, the uncle attempts to explain why Mr Beethoven seems so strange to Christoph – and, in particular, describes how Beethoven is going deaf and must imagine the music in his head before he can write it down.’
By Pement’s estimation, the Classical Kids Live! troupe averages 50 performances a year with orchestras from around the world, performing to 100,000 children and their parents annually. ‘The most common response we hear about the Beethoven programme is how the kids in the audience were “completely captivated,”’ he says. ‘I’m always proud to hear this because that word is a part of our organisational vision: to captivate, educate, enrich and inspire young people through a cultural understanding of classical music and history.’
Ang agrees: ‘The SSO hopes to build an audience for the future,’ he says. ‘These concerts represent the first contact with classical music for many kids, and when that experience is a joyful and meaningful one they carry that memory with them into adulthood – a memory that classical music is fun, different and enjoyable in every way.’
Beethoven Lives Upstairs is at the SOTA Concert Hall on 18 & 19 May.