Platypus Theatre-presto-mambo

MSO Family Concerts engage young audience members

By: David Lewellen

Published March 20th, 2019

Tagged Under: Family, Guest Artist, 2018.19 Season

It’s never too early to start attracting the next generation of concertgoers.

That’s why the Milwaukee Symphony schedules a lineup of family concerts every season, including the upcoming “Presto, Mambo!” concert on Sunday, March 31. An hour-long concert of short pieces, with some visual elements and narration, helps make the orchestra fun and inviting to young children – and to their parents or grandparents.

“It’s an entry point for future audiences,” said Rebecca Whitney, the MSO’s director of education, “and a training ground for our youngest audience members.” Typically, before the concert, children can take part in an hour of activities in Anello Atrium, such as an instrument petting zoo, arts and crafts, a conductor station, and a composer station, in which children put stickers of music notes on a pre-printed staff, and an MSO member plays the result for the child. The idea, Whitney said, is “pre-concert activities to get the wiggles out, and then you go into the hall, where there are different rules.”

Sometimes the symphony puts together its own concert; sometimes, as it will this Sunday, it partners with an outside group that has a complete production – usually more elaborate than an orchestra can produce for itself for one weekend’s use. Platypus Theatre, a Canadian-based group, has been presenting children’s concerts with orchestras across North America and the world for nearly 30 years, including many previous visits to Milwaukee.

Platypus director Peter Duschenes said that he started the company with his brother 30 years ago, initially out of dissatisfaction at the level of the typical orchestra family concert. Platypus now offers eight different shows, but he said, “We keep the story about the music, so the orchestra is not a backup band.”

Presto, Mambo!” is built around a theme of Latin American music, with a story told by one actor and one puppeteer – a fairly typical cast for a Platypus show. It’s the group’s newest offering, and the combination of music and story has proved popular. “It’s really fun for orchestras to play, but it’s unusual repertoire,” Duschenes said. “It’s got lots of audience participation, getting up out of the seats and dancing.” In creating a show, “the musical idea comes first,” in this case a story about the music of the Americas.

In the years since Duschenes saw a need to produce something better for family concerts, the landscape has changed greatly. Multimedia offerings are everywhere, entertainment is faster-paced – and orchestras have realized that they have to work to develop future audiences. “Orchestras have realized how important it is to nurture future audiences, so they’re putting in more money and effort,” he said.

Even elementary school-age kids, Duschenes said, “have a pre-set idea, and not necessarily a positive idea, about what an orchestra concert is. So they’re very excited to realize how compelling it can be.” Their parents, too, may be apprehensive, which is why Platypus puts in humor and references for adults.

Sunday’s event is the second and final family concert on this season’s schedule, due to limited availability of Uihlein Hall. Whitney said that when the Milwaukee Symphony moves into the Warner Grand Theater and Symphony Center in the fall of 2020, it hopes to begin programming four family concerts per season.

This week is Platypus’ sixth appearance with the MSO, Duschenes said, “and we always enjoy it. It’s a lovely orchestra to work with, and we enjoy the audiences.”