“Tunes for tots on tumbling mats!” sounds like an ad for a toy, but it’s actually the theme of a free Bay Area music program.
Presented by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with collaboration from Crowden Music School in Berkeley, “Very First Concerts” introduces classical music to babies, toddlers and older children.
Visitors ages “0 to 6” and their families and friends are heartily invited to attend the series, which begins its 2013 programming this month with “The Art of Listening” in San Mateo and Berkeley.
Like all chamber orchestra presentations, the concerts — just 20 minutes long — are free, participatory and open to everybody.
During the concerts, Ben Simon, the orchestra’s music director, encourages youngsters to wriggle, squirm and dance to first-rate classical music.
“We’ve designed this series for very young listeners, and to allow parents to escape the restrictions of a traditional concert hall,” he says.
Among his favorite events was “Be a Conductor.” Imitating Simon, all of the kids, waving imaginary batons, got to lead the program.
Simon, known for his great sense of humor and informal, encouraging presentations, is far from the distant “maestro figure” stereotype. He even uses his black MacBook to play some excerpts of the program, and demonstrates his cellphone ring.
Among the reasons for his passion is that children today are rarely exposed to classical music.
“When I was growing up, there was music in schools, Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Young People’s Concerts’ on TV, San Francisco had three classical music radio stations ... and there is none of that today,” he says.
The chamber orchestra, which turns 60 this year, also presents 45-minute family concerts. On Jan. 26-27, “Music from the Mediterranean” — with Kaila Flexer on fiddle and Gari Hegedus on oud, saz and other stringed instruments — explores music of Turkey and Greece.
The family concert series continues with “Shall We Dance” in March, featuring Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Youth Company.
Since it was founded in 1953 by Edgar Braun and Adrian Sunshine, the nonprofit chamber orchestra has employed professional musicians to fulfill its mission to provide free concerts, which, in addition to the family presentations, also include 90- to 120-minute main-stage programs, preceded by a talk by Simon.
From Feb. 22 through Feb. 24, the group presents “Dance Suite,” with music by Bach, Corigliano, Grieg and a commissioned piece by Michael Gilbertson, in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Berkeley.