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Kids' Day

Beethoven for Beginners


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The sidewalk outside Orchestra Hall teemed with children who'd arrived early for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 12:30 family concert. The hour-long program featured "Beethoven Lives Upstairs," a story about Beethoven's life told against a backdrop of excerpts from his best-known works.

Little boys were dressed up like men, in ties and oxfords. Little girls were dressed up like, well, little girls, in fancy dresses, tights, huge bows, and patent leather shoes. Contrasting with the formal attire were pink parkas and everyday coats emblazoned with the names of Chicago sports teams, though one girl was encased in a three-quarter-length white fur coat.

The lobby was full of families emerging from the sold-out 11 AM performance--an in-crush and out-crush of children. Standing in the middle was the mailbox-size cough-drop dispenser, its opening turned to face a pillar.

A long, sluggish line of women accompanied by small children led up to the rest room. "Have you heard this before?" asked one mother.

"Do you want to go home right now?" asked another. "It can be arranged very easily."

"Brian, get off the floor right now."

"Pay attention and be polite."

"I want you to go now so I don't have to hear about it halfway through the concert."

"We'll run around afterward."

This performance was also nearly sold out, but at 12:30 it looked as if many of the seats were just piled with coats. When the stage lights brightened there was a rustling among the coats and little children straightened up in the seats. Many took up positions in their parents' laps.

Families were still filing down the aisles as the conductor raised his baton to signal for quiet. One mother hissed at her son, "I said shhhh!"

The opening notes from the fourth movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony brought a swift end to the commotion, and all heads tilted toward the stage. A girl held up her stuffed lion so it could see. A boy seated on the main floor in about the 12th row trained his G.I. Joe binoculars on the stage. Another boy jumped up and, pointing his index fingers in the air, "conducted" the piece with enthusiasm. Up in the first row of the balcony children leaned over the railing, chins cupped in hands.

The members of the orchestra, dressed in their customary black, were set back on the stage, and in front of them was a clutter of cardboard chairs, books, and the like. The two characters in the tale, Christoph and his uncle, wove in and out of these props as they recounted Beethoven's struggles with deafness and loneliness.

A little more than halfway though the program a big woman with a severe hairstyle marched up the aisle dragging her little boy behind. Another woman shot out of her seat when her son began to cry and hurried him out, his legs flying. A father strode up the aisle, bottle in one hand, flailing child in the other. Next went a pacifier, a three-year-old, and a resigned mother.

Fifty minutes into the concert many of the children were either slumping or stretching. One father-daughter combination had fallen asleep. In fact, many fathers were sleeping. No mothers were asleep.

But the applause at the end was wild and happy, crisper than Orchestra Hall is accustomed to hearing. Parents and children turned to each other with big smiles.

In the lobby parents busily buttoned up coats and located gloves. Younger children asked about lunch, while many older children stood talking in small groups. Four girls from Barrington Hills were already making plans to attend the next concert.

Adult hands held small hands as everyone walked out into the damp weather. Some parents slung an arm around their children's shoulders, giving them an affectionate squeeze.

As she walked along Michigan Avenue, Marisol Guttman said she was sorry Mr. Beethoven couldn't show up for the concert.

Six-year-old Hayley Steinbarth said softly, "I thought Beethoven was a dog."

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