No one can ever be sure exactly what will turn a child on to classical music, but lots of adults are out there trying. Carnegie Hall has its own ideas about what works best, and for the past four seasons, on select Saturday afternoons, the kids take over and family concerts rule. The overall tone of these occasions may be informal, even at times delightfully chaotic, but there is no dumbing down -- and a good thing, too, since most children can tell when they are being condescended to. The latest of these musical matinees featured the Emerson String Quartet, which seemed to have no problem in getting into the spirit of things as the four musicians (all fathers themselves) initiated their young audience into some of the more accessible beauties of this lofty genre.
As a prelude to the main event, preconcert activities in other parts of the building set the mood by playing variations on the theme of the afternoon, including string-playing pupils (primarily from the Diller-Quaile School of Music) to help demystify the instruments. Perhaps the best way to draw youngsters in is by having them listen to their peers perform -- a sight that apparently appeals to doting parents as well, judging from the expressions of adult enchantment as seven tots between 6 and 10 sawed away on their miniature cellos. Since some children prefer to be eased into the concert experience without advance instruction, there was storytelling by Charlotte Blake Alston in the main hall followed by actor James Glossman's lively recitation of Ferdinand the Bull with Philip Setzer, one of the quartet's violinists, to provide musical commentary.
Then, with Ms. Alston as the laid-back hostess, the Emerson foursome plunged into the Dvorak American Quartet. During the next hour, many facets of quartet playing were explored and explained: how four string players function as a team; how the different parts blend and why they sometimes clash; how different textures are created through attack and articulation; who is assigned the melody, who the accompaniment, and why -- all important things to know, along with the ways a composer can make a string quartet sound happy (Smetana's From My Life), sad (the Bartok Sixth), scary (the same composer's Fourth), angry (a Beethoven scherzo in C minor), or just plain silly (Shostakovich's Polka). Even this grown-up learned a few valuable things from the Emerson's engaging performances and went away eager to hear more.