November 26, 2008


Panda Classics: Piano Time; March Time; Dance Time. Naxos. $19.99 (3 CDs).

Panda Classics: Toon Time. Naxos. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Here’s a really great way to get the youngest children involved in classical music – either in your family or, through gifts, in others. Naxos has put together kid-friendly packages of short tunes and entire brief pieces drawn from the company’s very extensive catalogue, giving young children a chance to hear a lot of familiar music in its original form. These are serious performances, not jazzed-up ones designed specifically for kids; that is to say, the music is not “dumbed down” in any way. In fact, the performances are simply repackagings of CDs in the existing Naxos catalogue, originally recorded between 1987 and this year. The nice thing about this arrangement is that it makes the “Panda Classics” CDs into “classical gateways” for kids: if children especially enjoy some of the short works here (a Brahms Hungarian Dance, for example) and decide they want to hear more, parents will be able to buy full Naxos CDs (say, the complete Brahms Hungarian Dances) for future gift-giving occasions.

     The three-CD set may require parents to have some familiarity with classical music in order to get children involved. Otherwise, for young ears, there will simply be some interesting piano, march and dance music and some of less interest. Parents with knowledge of the works included on the CDs will be better able to choose ones their kids will enjoy. For instance, Mozart’s “Variations on a French Song” for piano is actually variations on the tune known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” while Beethoven’s “FΓΌr Elise” is a perennially popular work often taught to young piano students. The CD of marches may be even more accessible, including such super-popular tunes as Sousa’s “The Stars & Stripes Forever” and Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” And the CD of dances will be the most…well, danceable: here are Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker, a ballet that many children may already have seen, plus Khachaturian’s highly melodious waltz from his Masquerade Suite, and much more. There are two dozen “Piano Time” tracks, 22 for “March Time” and 18 for “Dance Time,” all of them complete and uncut – so parents who are not highly involved in classical music, but who know enough so they can initially introduce their children to a few familiar pieces, will have plenty of opportunities to expand both their kids’ musical interests and their own. And there is more fun for kids here than just the three-plus hours of music: the packaging includes three coloring sheets, six colored pencils with which to draw on them, and three sheets of stickers – all nice bonuses to keep small hands busy while small ears are occupied with the music.

     The “Toon Time” two-CD set is more focused and has the potential to be even more fun for families whose children enjoy classic cartoons, especially the great Warner Brothers “Looney Tunes” and Walt Disney’s wonderful 1940 film, Fantasia. Those are the sources primarily associated with the two-and-a-half hours of music here, with Fantasia taking up the entire second CD. In fact, that CD traces almost the entire film, except that instead of the movie’s abridgments of such works as Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the CD includes complete elements – such as the full second movement of the Beethoven and the entire “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Tchaikovsky. This CD is a wonderful way to re-enjoy the Disney film or to re-experience it at times when it is impractical to watch the movie itself – during short drives, for example. As for the first CD, it offers complete versions of many works popularized by the wonderful Warner Brothers animators – the pieces being in some cases longer than the six-minute cartoons themselves. So now kids can hear the entire Barber of Seville overture, the complete Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Johann Strauss Jr.’s whole Blue Danube Waltz, and much more – as well as complete versions of pieces that really are extremely short, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s minute-and-a-half Flight of the Bumblebee. The only thing parents need to watch out for with this CD is the possibility that kids will enjoy the music so much that they will insist parents go out and buy the cartoons in which the music is used. But of course, that would just produce another opportunity for family bonding. And what could be wrong with get-togethers built around toons featuring all these wonderful tunes?

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