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Shouts of Joy

for the European premiere

of Mostel's "Travels of Babar"

February 26, 2017 / Music Today (Musik Heute) [Click here for the original German text]


By Corina Kolbe

Berlin - In an egg-yolk-yellow balloon, the newly-married king and queen of the elephants, Babar and Celeste, rise into the brilliant blue sky. On their hectic honeymoon they become stranded on a deserted island, land in a circus and finally flee back homewards, where the rhinoceroses have just declared war. With shouts of joy, the large number young audience members witnessed Raphael Mostel's imaginative setting of Jean de Brunhoff's children's story "The Travels of Babar" in its European premiere performances on Sunday in Berlin.  

In the sold-out Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie, the performance also included the world premiere of the new HD version of the slideshow, also conceived by the American composer with original watercolors by the author. Stanley Dodds, who is also a second violinist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted the family concert. In addition to his violist colleague Martin von der Nahmer and guest musicians, members from the orchestral academy also took part. The actor Hans-Jürgen Schatz was the narrator.

Taking a different approach than Sergei Prokofiev's musical story-telling "Peter and the Wolf", the instruments in Mostel's "Babar" are not tied to particular figures. While colorful pictures were projected on three monitors installed in the upper seating areas, the chamber ensemble transformed into extremely three-dimensional music the  46 scenes of the story as Schatz narrated in a new German translation. As Babar and Celeste were departing in the ballon, taking leave of their family, the bassoon played a melancholy melody. The sound of the instruments swelled menacingly when the balloon was caught in a storm and had to make an emergency landing. The keyboard instrument celesta gave Queen Celeste a voice. The cello became the rhinoceros, the trombone to the steamship whistle. In addition to clarinet, cornet, trombone, viola and piano, drums, bird whistles, rainsticks and whirlies were also used.

The Berlin premiere celebrated the 85th anniversary of the first publication of "The Travels of Babar" in France as well as the 80th anniversary of the death of Jean de Brunhoff, who gave the animals human traits in his stories. Mostel has enjoyed success with its Babar project since the 1990s, especially in the USA and Canada. In addition to Francis Poulenc, he is the only composer who gave Brunhoff's heirs the right to set a Babar book.

"From the beginning I wanted to reach a large audience and make up for the absence of musical education in our society," said the composer in the interview with the news agency MUSIK TODAY. "Many people today lack a key to understanding music." When composing, he imagined how a child out of pure curiosity strikes the keys of a piano. "Through such experiments, I taught myself how to play at the same time I was also learning how to speak," recalls Mostel, who grew up near New York. Jean de Brunhoff's book illustrations were his greatest source of inspiration. "In a very clever way, he concentrated on the essentials. The pictures in the book should only be printed in three colors, and I wanted to do the same with composing. My "Babar" reduces the music to basic elements like scales. That's because I want to show that you can also make music from very simple means. "

Aside from the chamber music version of "The Travels of Babar", Mostel has since also written a version for orchestra. This work was given its premiere performance last spring in Canada with the Orchester Symphonique de Montréal, after the New York Philharmonic had already presented excerpts. Altogether, Mostels Babar's composition has been performed almost 60 times. In the beginning of the 2000s, about 8,000 students got to know the work in the first joint project of the New York City Opera with the Metropolitan Opera Guild.



Kai Beinert,

for Berliner Philharmoniker

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