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Music

Elephants in a Balloon Float to Greece in June, Babar at the Summer Nostos Festival

February 23, 2020

NEW YORK – Selected to open the Summer Nostos Festival at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in June, American composer Raphael Mostel’s unique treat for both eye and ear, creates a magical introduction to music, based on and modernizing one of the most beloved picture-books, Le Voyage de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. Babar and Celeste, the famous young king and queen of the elephants, will float off in their famous yellow balloon towards the many twists and turns of their amusing and alarming honeymoon adventures. These performances will be the Greek premiere of the full production of Mostel’s much-acclaimed work (now titled in Greek The Odyssey of Babar).

“Elephantastic!” was the verdict of West German Radio (WDR) on Mostel’s work when the Berliner Philharmoniker presented the European premiere of the full production of the complete hour-long work. As it will be for the SNFestival’s Greek premiere Athens, rather than the new version the composer has created for full orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker used the original version of the score for narrator, conductor, and a miniature orchestra of eight musicians, with the new high-definition (HD) multimedia Mostel directed using de Brunhoff’s original watercolors from French National Library (BNF) to complement his composition. This version is embedded in a special production also designed by Mostel that includes innovative theatrical lighting to integrate the experience of what the Music Today (Musik Heute) critic described as “extremely three-dimensional music” that the audience greeted with “shouts of joy.”

This writer experienced the spell Mostel’s Travels of Babar casts on audiences at the recent U.S. premiere of the new full production in New York City at Florence Gould Hall of the French Institute, presented by Source Music, Inc. with funding from the Florence Gould Foundation. Leah Pisar was the narrator in both languages, and Neal Goren conducted the eight great musicians. Attending the three shows at the French Institute, one in French and two in English, was the son of Jean de Brunhoff, the broadly smiling Laurent de Brunhoff (born 1925), who himself, after his father’s death in 1937, created more than 45 new stories about the famous elephant starting in 1946.

Mostel has beautifully structured a musical narrative. Children of all ages at the concert were excited and not disturbed at all by the fact that the show lasted about an hour, demonstrating that with such imaginative fare young children can focus for far longer than most experts imagine. Because as we have seen even in very young children, even if at some point they were getting close to being distracted, there was only a slight alternation in either the music or the multimedia images that was required to focus their attention again on the scene. The work charmed not only the children but also the adults too, with this writer also captivated by its magic.

Unlike other similar works, such as Peter and the Wolf, the musicians convey the logic of the story-telling through the music itself rather than having each instrument represent a specific character. The music is full of variety, colors and different strategies following the flow of the story, whether depicting or accompanying the images projected above the stage, the intensity and drama of hot air balloon buffeted in the storm, the anxiety on the desert island, the melancholy of captivity, the skiing in the Alps, the marches to battle, and the harmonious finale. But that’s only one level.

On a second self-referential level Mostel’s score with its unusual transparency demonstrates how the music itself works, for example how drama, speed, agony, and musical pursuit are expressed, with many variations, sometimes more classical, sometimes more modern, with melody, instruments, tempi, vibrato, and expression used in a variety of ways.

So not only does Mostel’s Babar turn into a fascinating miniature history of classical music with “charms hard to resist,” as The New York Times described from its very first performances, but it also serves as a master class  on how musical expression and narrative relate to each other, and it succeeds in taking its place among the very select corresponding works: such as Peter and the Wolf, the Carnival of the Animals, and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Sergei Prokofiev, Camille Saint-Saens, and Benjamin Britten, respectively.

This second level may be the most charming part of the project, even for the grown-ups, as familiarity with the musical elements is easily perceived and “passes” implicitly, without changing the character and magic of the story and the music.

Inspired by bedtime stories his pianist wife Cecile invented for their children, the seven Babar picture-books author and artist Jean de Brunhoff completed before his untimely death in 1937 remain among the most well-known and beloved children’s books, translated into dozens of languages. The first of them The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1931) tells the childhood of baby Babar, who is orphaned suddenly when hunters shoot his mother, and his subsequent upbringing by the kindly Old Lady in a nearby town, who takes care of his education and other needs, and ends with his return to the Land of the Elephants where he is crowned King and marries his cousin Celeste in a ceremony where all the animals join in celebrating. The book was an immediate success. Noted French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) created the 1940 work: L’Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant, for narrator and piano for de Brunhoff’s first picture-book in 1940, when his nephews placed the picture-book on the piano and asked him to “play” it. Poulenc’s Babar is one of his most-performed works.

Raphael Mostel is the only composer other than Poulenc to have been granted permission to create a concert work with one of Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books. (The Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal paired Poulenc’s and Mostel’s Babar together on the same program, with both in their versions for full orchestra, when they introduced Mostel’s work in Canada.)

Mostel’s Babar is a completely new composition based on the second of Jean’s seven books: Babar, no longer a “little” elephant, has been made king and gotten married.  So the book follows his honeymoon adventures to see the world in a famous yellow balloon. Le Voyage de Babar (The Travels of Babar, The Odyssey of Babar) is considered Jean de Brunhoff’s masterpiece by experts such as noted author/artist Maurice Sendak. This picture-book was, so to speak, placed on Raphael Mostel’s piano by a producer from Japan, S.T. Semba, who commissioned this new Babar score originally for a recording of a reading of the book in Japanese. The idea came as a complete surprise and would require something very different from everything else he had composed up until then, but he immediately agreed. Impressed by the way de Brunhoff had wittily used deceptively simple visual means to convey the rich narrative with images, Mostel realized he could do something analogous and compose something new and especially useful: he could recreate for others how he himself had discovered the elements of music when as a young child he taught himself how to play piano. He felt this particularly important since music education has become so rare, unlike when he was young, when everyone received at least some basic education about music. So Mostel was inspired to create 46 scenes, one for each of the book’s illustrations, each demonstrating a different musical idea while also “telling” the story. The CD was released in Japan in 1994, with the composer conducting.

Since the commission did not include permission for live performance, Mostel worked to acquire these rights himself, helped by one of his Babar’s most enthusiastic fans, Laurent de Brunhoff, the son of Jean de Brunhoff, who has himself narrated Mostel’s Babar twice.  And even further, with his continued assistance, Mostel has acquired the rights to use the original watercolors in the multimedia he has directed to accompany his score.

The Summer Nostos Festival will mark the 70th presentation of Mostel’s Babar and this Greek Premiere will make Greek the work’s sixth language. Nikos Tsouchlos will conduct. The composer and his lighting designer Michael Mazzola will be flying in to Athens to supervise the production and insure that the audiences can expect the highest quality experience possible, insuring the magic of Mostel’s The Odyssey of Babar about this wise and cosmopolitan French elephant will inspire the love of music for his Greek friends, young and old!

More information about the Summer Nostos Festival is available online: snf.org.

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