By WILLIAM AMORY
For Montclair Local
By the time Peter Rabbit appeared, the children in the balcony pews had left their seats and pressed themselves down against the balcony railing to get a better view and get closer to the performance. The feeling in the airy, sunlit nave of Central Presbyterian was of a high-level music festival appealingly devoted to children. Musical education was integrated into the program; there was a high professional level of the music making; and the story of Peter Rabbit was set as an opera.
Conductor David Chan began the program by showing the children how Beethoven used four notes to build the first movement of his Symphony No. 5, asking various instruments to show how they sounded playing their version of the famous four notes. The orchestra then played the movement with a seemingly effortless deepening of the sound in the crescendos.
Chan’s engagement with his audience continued with his introduction Grieg’s “Morning Mood.” He began by demonstrating how certain instruments can evoke birdsong, and then narrated the start of the piece, conducting with microphone in hand, until he put down the microphone and turned toward the orchestra to continue conducting, literally never missing a beat. It was a unique and charming introduction to Grieg’s beautiful “Mood.” The orchestra played feelingly with a lilt that was at times wistful, at times purely happy — Chan’s conducting balancing between the yearning, romantic element in Grieg’s music, and its confident sunlight.
Continuing his illustrations of the orchestra for his young audience, Chan explained how a string orchestra can sound liked a guitar, by plucking its strings, which they did in the next piece, Johann Strauss’ “Pizzicato Polka.”
For Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” overture, Chan explained how overtures to operas introduce the various characters in the story. He singled out different instruments once again to show the audience their character, and in this round of examples the French horns played the Star Wars theme of John Williams, which drew a satisfyingly vocal reaction from the audience. The character the kids were told to look out for in the overture was a storm, and Chan said that everyone would need to open an imagined umbrella when the storm came up — which a lot of kids did. Here again, as in the Beethoven, the orchestra played with a transparency, while summoning up an unforced depth in the louder passages and the great crescendos.
After the intermission, members of the New Camerata Opera joined the Montclair Orchestra in a presentation of the story of Peter Rabbit set to music from Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’amore.” There were some rabbit ears and costumes, a bit of a tree and a lovely cabbage patch as scenery. Things got off to a bit of a shaky start as Julia Tang, the narrator, froze as she started to explain to the kids what an opera was. No matter — she quickly showed what a lovely singer she was, with a strong mezzo and good articulation.
Next to sing was soprano Barbara Porto as Mama Rabbit. Porto has a lovely, bright and sweet soprano and sings musically, but at times her words were unintelligible in her higher range. Tenor Victor Khodadad, as Peter Rabbit, projected clearly. The children in the audience responded visibly to Khodadad’s charming bunny ways. Khodadad sang the famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” with sad bunny words, beautifully, negotiating the range of the song elegantly.
Stan Lacy, baritone, took on the role of mean Mr. McGregor. Truthfully this McGregor seemed altogether too kind to be a really evil guy, but he did do some great chasing of Peter and grabbing him by the nape of his neck in their duet. Lacy sang gracefully about his ministrations to his cabbages.
A lecture-demonstration at the end of a fairly long concert was unnecessary. Apart from that, Montclair Orchestra and Camerata Opera’s concert today was beautifully geared to its audience while attaining the highest levels of music making.