Proms Diary: The Big Proms Bear Hunt

Jeremy Pound enjoys assorted ursine activities at the Royal Albert Hall

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Michael RosenWagner or Bear Hunt? Bear Hunt or Wagner? It’s not the sort of dilemma one might normally expect when choosing which BBC Prom to take one’s children to. So let me explain…

Back in 2009, Dame Liz Forgan, the recently appointed chair of Arts Council England, explained to the world – well, the audience at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards – that the best way to introduce children to the joys of music is to plunge them headfirst into Wagner. It was, to be fair, not a theory plucked out of nowhere, but based on her own experience of getting to know and love Tristan und Isolde at the age of six.

This year’s Proms programme has certainly offered youngsters and their parents plenty of chance to try Dame Liz’s theory out. With no fewer than seven complete Wagner operas looming large over the two-month season (that’s around 26 and a half hours in total) all it would need would be a little diary juggling and a train journey or two, and my son, James, could have racked up Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Tristan and all four parts of the Ring cycle before his sixth birthday has even loomed on the horizon – and with the Rienzi overture and the Wesendonck Lieder thrown in for good measure.

Or, alternatively, I could go for the Big Proms Bear Hunt on 1 September – an hour or so of Sunday afternoon musical fun, in which nippers get to hear short works of classical music in the context of a visual presentation of Michael Rosen’s much loved book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. So, Wagner or Bears? Sorry, Dame Liz, but for the sake of James’s (and my) sanity, we went for the Bears.

And a fine choice it was too. Quite rightly, Rosen (pictured above) himself led the way from a lectern at the front of the stage, reading those words that have become familiar to millions of parents and children – ‘We’re going on a bear hunt; we’re going to catch a big one; we’re not scared…’ – but with suitable moments of adaptation to fit this musical occasion.

Tony RossProviding that music was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, its colourfully clad ranks swelled for the day by clearly thrilled members of the West Everton Children’s Orchestra – an ensemble that is the result of the wonderful In Harmony Liverpool organisation. Behind the orchestra stood the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choir – in fine vocal fettle and equipped with a full complement of accompanying actions – while in front of them was leading children’s illustrator Tony Ross (above), drawing suitably ursine scenes that were projected onto big screens as the action moved merrily along.

Much of the music was familiar, such Musorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev, the Trepak from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and so on, but there were plenty of new and lesser known pieces to keep even us oldies intrigued and involved. I was particularly taken with the RLPO’s raucous rendition of Arturo Marquez’s Conga del Fuego Nuevo, a work I last heard played by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela back in 2005.

Admittedly, one or two moments didn’t work – the ‘let’s take a breather’ performance of Humperdinck’s 'Evening Prayer', for instance, was never likely to have the most receptive audience, given everyone's impatience to move on to the next instalment of bear hunting. At its best, however, this was a brilliantly conceived and performed Prom, rounded off by a masterful medley of all the works we’d heard throughout the previous hour, as the bear-hunting family ran back home through the various obstacles it had met on its way (you’ll have to read the book…). Pound Jnr was agog throughout. So were his mum and I.

As for the best way to introduce children to music? Let’s not be entirely dismissive of Dame Liz’s idealistic Forganland, where tots tootle Tannhäuser and reception classes stage Ring cycles. Not until it’s been given a go, at least. However, my own experience of the Big Proms Bear Hunt – and, in previous years, the Horrible Histories Prom and the Wallace and Gromit Prom – convinces me that this, surely, is the better approach…

You can hear the Big Proms Bear Hunt for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer. Photos: Chris Christodoulou