This is a particularly big week for ambitious children’s television programs. Actor Dudley Moore begins a guided tour of the symphony on the Showtime cable network, the Disney Channel offers a drama about race relations, and CBS broadcasts a special that deals with incest.
Orchestra! — or Dudley Moore’s Variation on a Theme by Leonard Bernstein — finds the famous actor (and able pianist) delving into classical music for a family audience, as Bernstein did from 1958 to 1972 with his televised CBS Young People’s Concerts. Not an easy task. Despite the personable Moore, the knowledgeable Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Georg Solti, and the capable college-age musicians from Germany’s Schleswig- Holstein Music Festival, the first two segments in this 10-part series are shapeless and unfocused.
The initial installment, Percussion, purports to be about drums and related instruments, but it barely touches on the subject. The orchestra plays a bit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring while the camera pans, swoops, dips, and zooms dizzyingly as if flown by a pilot who just discovered that the fire has spread to his number three and four engines. Solti chats about the furor Rite caused when first performed in 1913, and then the gong player and the triangle player demonstrate their instruments. The triangle produces a mildly surprising variety of tones, but it’s nowhere near as versatile as the kettledrum, that most musical of percussion instruments, which, astoundingly, this program says almost nothing about. Later on we are offered esoteric conversation about, and snippets of, Bartok, Lutoslawski, and Ravel, the latter performed as searchlights play across the orchestra for that all-important prison-movie ambience.
The camera calms down a bit in the second segment, Piano, but as in the first, only serious music students will understand Moore and Solti’s discussions, and there’s not enough uninterrupted playing to entice the casual viewer.