Princeton Symphony Orchestra Looks to Contemporary Ways to Introduce Classical Music to Kids

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Rossen Milanov still recalls what first sparked his love for music.

“That was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One,” he says. “I still remember the recording at home that I was playing over and over again.”

He was 5 years old. And his youthful enthusiasm hasn’t wavered. This sunny Saturday afternoon, he’s excited for the concert ahead: Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead! It’s a piece that includes narration written by fictional children’s author Lemony Snicket, and introduces all of the instruments in the orchestra as suspects in a murder mystery.

For the young audience members of the Symphony’s family concert, it could be their moment to fall in love with the art form or a favorite instrument. Narrator Julian Grant is a Symphony board member and composer in his own right.

“It’s not some of the older pieces,” says Grant. “You know, there’s the Benjamin Brittan piece, The Young Person’s Guide for the Orchestra, which is a marvelous piece of music, but the narration is very 1940s Britain.”

This concert is certainly not that. In addition to The Composer is Dead!, the symphony leads a sing-a-long, plays Anatol Liadov’s storytelling composition Baba Yaga and performs excerpts from John Williams’ score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

It’s the same concert the Princeton Symphony Orchestra presented to local schools earlier last week through their educational program, Bravo!, as the culmination of their school-year presentation series.

“The winds will visit the second grade; the strings, the third; the percussion, the fourth; the brass, the fifth,” explains Princeton Symphony Orchestra Executive Director and Bravo! founder Melanie Clarke. “And then, at the end of the school year, they come and hear a concert here at Richardson.”

Richardson Auditorium in Princeton University’s Alexander Hall isn’t cheap to rent, but it is a stunning setting. And from the beginning, Clarke has insisted that these concerts be held here, so that kids not only fall in love with the music, but also with the experience. Clarke wants young people to feel the concert hall is a place where they belong.

“Because we don’t want any barriers up,” she says.

It’s a great place, according to Clarke, to catch the ears of a new generation of music-lovers like young attendee Julian Rossi. “I heard it like mysterious, and like something soft, and creepy,” he shares.

Milanov says adult audience members can learn a few things from their kid counterparts like don’t think too much before you react and always open your mind to new music.