The Carnival of the Animals Holds a Multi-Generational Family Concert Crowd Rapt at the Miller Theatre
The best kind of so-called “family concerts” are like the Simpsons: they’re fun on face value, for the kids, but also have multiple levels of meaning for the adults. Such was the case yesterday afternoon at the sold-out multimedia performance of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals at the Miller Theatre. The kids – as diverse a mix as can be found in this multicultural city – loved the surrealistic, more-or-less lifesize puppets designed by Lake Simons and paraded around the stage with suspenseful, vaudevillian flair by Kristen Kammermeyer, Brendan McMahon, Justin Perkins and Rachael Shane. The adults, as well as what seemed to be a large percentage of the children, responded raptly to an exquisitely detailed, unselfconsciously playful performance by a ten-piece chamber orchestra, the strings of the Mivos Quartet augmented by an all-star cast on piano, percussion and winds.
While Simons took her inspiration for this show from late 1800s’ toy theatres, which rivalled the most elaborate dollhouses of the era, her creations had a lo-fi charm: mops, brooms, dusters and other wood-and-fabric assemblages brought to life the menagerie in the composer’s well-loved score. The ensemble followed the stage direction seamlessly, and that was a lot more cleverly orchestrated than a simple procession. Lively interplay between the puppeteers extended down into the audience at one point, drawing all sorts of laughs.
The music pulsed along vividly: regal lions, sputtering chickens, buffoonish donkeys, birds of all kinds and even pianists tortured by a cruel parody of boring etudes all got a minute or two centerstage. What was most striking about this concert – from the perspective of an adult who was able to brush up on the music beforehand with a well-worn vinyl record – was how downright creepy it is. Pianist Ning Yu’s otherworldly glimmer reminded how often the suite’s portrait of fish underwater has been used in horror films…and how Philip Glass nicked it for his Dracula soundtrack. And the depiction of fossil bones – which, in a neat choice of dynamics, the ensemble slowed from a gallop to a slinky sway – is a rewrite of the composer’s famous Danse Macabre. Happily, that aspect of the music seemed to go over the kids’ heads.
Toy pianist Laura Barger and percussionist Russell Greenberg opened the concert with a sprightly dance by William Byrd, a familiar Tschaikovsky theme and a carol, all of which were performed intricately and conversationally, although this long intro left the kids restless. There was also narration, utilizing Odgen Nash doggerel originally recorded in 1949 by an ensemble led by Andre Kostelanetz, and that drew some chuckles from the oldsters but didn’t connect with the younger contingent either. Speaking of which, everyone from about age four on up was captivated by the spectacle, which wrapped up briskly in just under an hour. Predictably, the toddlers were not: it’s hard enough to get an eighteen-month-old in and out of the grocery store, let alone through an hour of sitting still in the midst of an audience who’ve bought their tickets expecting not to be annoyed. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to expect the most entitled contingent of the Upper Westside crowd here to respect the theatre’s no-toddlers policy.
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