Austin Symphony: Meeting the orchestra the first time

The Austin Symphony gets in touch with our inner child through a concert featuring some of the classical music that most people first heard when they were young

When I was very little, I remember sitting on the floor by a spinning phonograph in my grandmother's living room in Milbridge, Maine, listening to a voice describe for me the qualities of different instruments that were playing. It is one of my earliest memories, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to know that I was listening to Benjamin Britten's best-known orchestral work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, more popularly known as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, in which a narrator separates the instruments of the orchestra into their constituents – woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion – as each plays individually and in concert.

This weekend, the Austin Symphony Orchestra will offer Young Person's Guide as the first part of their Concert for the Young at Heart. For most people, says Peter Bay, ASO's conductor, "whether they know anything about classical music or not, the Young Person's Guide and Peter and the Wolf are probably the two pieces [they] will know, either because of records or because they were taken to the symphony somewhere and these pieces were played."

In the second part of the program, Anton Nel, UT professor of piano and chamber music and a regular soloist with the symphony, will perform Dohnányi's Variations on a Nursery Song, which Bay considers "one of the most enjoyable pieces of classical music in the literature because it's based on 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' It starts off with this huge, Wagnerian, almost Gone With the Wind-like seriously foreboding introduction, the orchestra playing at full tilt. There's this big timpani hit, and the whole orchestra comes to a sudden halt. Then, the pianist comes in playing the simple tune, and it eventually becomes a virtuoso piece for a pianist."

Nel knows something about young people and music, as he made his debut playing Beethoven's First Piano Concerto at the ripe old age of 12. "I was living on a farm in South Africa," he says, "and my mother, who played the piano, realized that I was very drawn to music and listening to the radio and picking out things on the piano. I wanted to play, there was no question. But she never taught me. She enrolled me in a local music school, and that was how it began. It was something that seemed destined to be."

ASO will conclude the program with another installment of its two-season mission to perform all of Beethoven's symphonies. This time it's the Second Symphony, surely a fine way to show off any orchestra – or even make an impression that lasts a lifetime.

The Austin Symphony Orchestra will present A Concert for the Young at Heart on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 1 and 2, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall. For more information, call 476-6064, or visit

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Austin Symphony Orchestra, Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Benjamin Britten, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Concert for the Young at Heart, Peter Bay, Anton Nel

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