Chamber Music Northwest has entered its fifth and final week – the venerable summer festival winds up its 46th season on Sunday, July 31 – and on the previous Saturday afternoon I zipped over to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to catch a family concert, Bruce Adolphe’s Marita and Her Heart’s Desire, a show I had first seen 22 years earlier when it premiered at CMNW, with the same narrator, the terrific Portland voice actor Michele Mariana. Marita was being performed the following two nights, too, on a more formal program that also included some Milhaud, Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Suite, and selections from another Adolphe piece, Einstein’s Light. But I wanted to see the kids, and the quirkily titled pre-show “Instrument Petting Zoo” in the lobby, and so I went to the shorter and more casual daytime show.
For anyone worried about the future of great music, the petting zoo was a revelation. Kids crowded the lobby, rushing up close to the instruments while their parents lurked behind. Trombones, violins, cornets: the place was cluttered with musical noisemakers, and kids were touching, blatting, bowing, trying things out. This was the musical nitty gritty: not just listening, but making music, even in crude and elementary form, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of these kids were going to choose an instrument, and buy one (that’s where the parents come in), and start practicing, and make this a lifelong thing. That’s how you pass it along.
Marita is a little more than a half-hour long, and it involves a little girl’s determination to find her heart’s desire, a quest that involves a nighttime trek through the darkened streets and across the river to Harper’s Department Store, where the moon sits on the roof and is an expert on such matters. Like a sort of Bremen Town gaggle, a cat, a rat, a dog, and a mouse join her journey, and like Peter and the Wolf, each character is represented by an instrument: violin or piccolo or bassoon or bass trombone, with several others in the mix. The musicians were in fine fettle, from Jennifer Frautschi’s lead violin (Marita’s “voice”) to Charles Reneau’s deftly lumbering bass trombone, Tara Helen O’Connor’s piccolo, Ryan Reynolds’ bassoon, Mihai Marico’s cello, Jonathan Greeney’s melodic percussion instruments, and more. The story, written by Sesame Street veteran Louise Gikow, is a wide-eyed picaresque, and Mariana relates it with a sense of wonder and an impressive array of character voices.
Yes, there was a bit of squirming in the audience, and more than one parent quietly escorting a child toward the exit for a necessary break. But there was intent concentration, too, and after the performance, when Adolphe (who conducted) asked if anyone had questions, they started pouring out. Several concerned the dog. How did he get all of those other animals and Marita on his back when they crossed the river? How did they hold on? Did they choke him? Think of him more as a cartoon dog than a real dog, Adolphe advised. Cartoon dogs can do plenty of things that real dogs can’t. How did Adolphe decide which instruments would represent which characters?, someone asked. A brief discussion of tonality and personality ensued. And when things finally broke up, they didn’t quite break up: kids headed toward the stage, lined up in front of Mariana or the instrumentalist of their choice, asked more questions, hung on for just a little bit more.
In a week of bad news and lousy politics from around the world, it was enough to give a semi-jaded onlooker an ounce of hope. Not a bad heart’s desire. Not a bad heart’s desire at all.