As much as I like music, I'm not well-versed in it. That's why I'm happy that a couple with impeccable credentials decided to help out parents and grandparents like me. Stephen Simon was the music director of the Washington Chamber Symphony at the Kennedy Center. His wife Bonnie was the executive director. Together they created a popular series of concerts for young people. Now they have turned their talents to the home front. No trip to the concert hall is necessary. Their Stories in Music CDs combine classic stories, lively music and interesting commentary.
Here's the Blueprint
Nine titles are currently available, ranging from classics like Swan Lake to new pieces composed by Stephen Simon, such as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, based on the children's book. Maestro Classics are suggested for ages 5-12, so they are perfect for school-age and tween grandchildren.
Although the content varies a bit from CD to CD, the order of activities is much the same:
- Listen to the story and the accompanying music.
- Learn something about the story or music.
- Listen to a special song played again.
- Hear a discussion of the instruments and musical motifs.
- Listen to the story/music again.
- Sing, dance, or play along to a song.
The music, played by the London Philharmonic, is first-class. The narration by Yadu is equally polished and professional. The educational content is brief but fascinating. A 24-page booklet that comes with the CD contains related information and activities. The music can be downloaded as an MP3 file, in which case the activities are available in a PDF file.
The Tortoise and the Hare
I chose to review The Tortoise and the Hare, which consists of original music written by Stephen Simon and a story adapted from the classic fable by Bonnie Simon. After listening to the piece, which lasts about 20 minutes, there's a two-minute lecture on Aesop and the fable; a playing of "The Pretzel Vendor of Paris," an original song by Stephen Simon; and a five-minute lecture about the musical instruments and motifs--my favorite part as snippets of music are played and elucidated. The contrabassoon is mentioned, for example; then we hear its unique sound. At this point, the piece is played again, so listeners can apply their new-found knowledge. The CD closes with a karaoke version of "The Pretzel Vendor of Paris" with an invitation to sing along.
Auxiliary activities in the accompanying booklet include solid extras such as a picture of the instruments that make up an orchestra; an explanation of the differences between turtles and tortoises and rabbits and hares; and an introduction to notes and rests. Then there are the to-be-expected puzzles and activities.
Peter and the Wolf
The other CD that I chose for review was the classic Peter and the Wolf. Since Prokofiev wrote the piece in part to introduce children to the instruments, that's how the CD begins, followed by the story/music combination. Extras on this CD include a biography of Prokofiev, a medley of Russian folk tunes and an explanation of the musical motifs associated with each animal. Then there is a second playing of the music without the story, followed by an invitation to dance to the joyful Kalinka. This CD is a bit more demanding than the Tortoise and the Hare, but it held my 7-year-old granddaughter's attention quite well.
The Bottom Line
Once you and your grandchildren get a taste of the line of Maestro Classics, you're bound to want more. Stephen Simon is a Handel expert, so I think Water Music is next on my list. Don't neglect to check out all of the extras available on the Maestro Classics website. Read an interview with the Simons, play with the instruments on the Kids Club page and visit Bonnie Simon's blog. Everything associated with this product, from the CD itself to the website and the activities, has been executed with loving attention to detail. I'm grateful that musicians with the credentials of the Simons care enough about kids to create Maestro Classics. Prokofiev would approve.