Natalie Skowlund

Reading Music: Fun Reads For Sound-Inspired Youngsters

By Natalie Skowlund

When Stravinsky Met Najinsky by Lauren Stringer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 

Age: elementary; ages 4 to 10

Description: A delightful retelling of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s artistic collaboration with dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky for the orchestra and ballet production, Rite of Spring. First performed in Paris in 1913, the production was monumentally different than anything that had been seen or heard before in the world of classical music and dance. In fact, it was so groundbreaking that it incited a riot among the audience at its premier. The book brilliantly illustrates the story of two artists daring to be different, thus encouraging young readers to use their creativity to push the boundaries of artistic expression as well. 

Watch: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky.


The Dance of the Violin by Kathy Stinson (Annick Press) 

Age: preschool and elementary; ages 4 to 8

Description: The whirling, colorful images that accompany this story about violinist Joshua Bell’s first musical competition at age 12 attract musical kids to a relatable story about the trial and error process involved in musical training. Even Bell, an internationally-renowned violinist, didn’t play perfectly during his first competition. The story is a fun read, and encourages kids to try their best and let the music support them, even when it doesn’t come out sounding flawless. 

Watch: Joshua Bell plays a classical rendition of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” alongside 13-year-old cellists Ian Maloney and Dylan Wu



When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press) 

Age: upper elementary through middle school; ages 8 to 14

Description: A beautifully-illustrated history of African American contralto Marian Anderson’s impressive vocal career during the first half of the 20th century. Born in Philadelphia and raised singing with the church choir at her family’s local Baptist church, Marian’s voice was outstanding from the beginning. As an African American woman, however, she faced obstacles to pursuing her dream based on the color of her skin. This book tells the empowering tale of Anderson’s efforts to prove to the world that she could sing to the heights that she believed she could. A refreshing take on the history of classical music, demonstrating the can-do attitude that led one African American woman to lift her voice in song for diverse audiences around the world. 

Watch: Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 performance at Lincoln Memorial


For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart by Elizabeth Rusch, Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Tricycle Press) 

Age: elementary and middle school; ages 8 to 12

Description: An inspiring account of the other Mozart prodigy, albeit one far less remembered–Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna. The book recounts the life of Maria Anna, a piano prodigy from an early age, as well as a heavy influence on her brother Wolfgang’s musical development. Although Wolfgang was permitted to travel and develop further as a musician once he grew up, Maria Anna stayed back. She would eventually marry and spend most of her life as primarily a wife and mother. Still, she continued playing the piano and teaching young musicians until her dying day. The book provides an important reflection on the erasure of women in much of classical music history. This hidden story related to one of the world’s most famous classical composers is sure to intrigue any curious child. 

Watch: The Papageno duet from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute
It’s said to be one of the last pieces Maria Anna Mozart played on the piano, blind and with one working hand, before her death


Jubilee! One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace by Alicia Potter, Illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick Press)

Age: elementary; ages 8 to 12

Description: This is the true life story of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, an Irish immigrant to the U.S. who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of American big band music. Gilmore’s musical legacy demonstrates the power of music to bring people together and promote peace. After the Civil War, Gilmore arranged a National Peace Jubilee in 1869, in which bands, orchestras, and choirs from across the nation converged in Boston for a grand performance honoring the end of the war and the restoration of peace. Gilmore’s story reminds us all that attempting an unbelievably big project in the name of peace and unity can bring surprising amounts of support from the broader community. Through music, Gilmore left an impression on not only the American band music tradition, but also a legacy of music as a means for unity and togetherness. 

Watch: When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a classic Civil War tune derived from an old Irish folk song; Patrick Gilmore wrote the lyrics to the American folk version. This video shows historical photos of Gilmore and Civil War era memorabilia


My First Orchestra Book by Genevieve Helsby, Illustrated by Karin Eklund (Naxos Books) 

Age: elementary to middle school; ages 6 to 12

Description: In alignment with its title, this book is a great gateway into the realm of orchestral music for a wide range of musically-inclined youth. The fun, accessible narrations of a Norwegian troll named Tormod make the reading a breeze as readers explore the orchestra alongside him. The book includes a short lead-up story as Tormod first encounters the orchestra, and then delves into more in-depth pages on different orchestral instruments. Unlikely to be read all the way through in one sitting, it’s a great reference book for the orchestrally-curious child to have around and explore at leisure.

Watch: ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg, performed by the Berliner Philharmonic


Peter and the Wolf by Chris Raschka, based on the original work by Sergei Prokofiev (Simon & Schuster) 

Age: elementary; ages 4 to 10

Description: Peter and the Wolf is a “symphonic fairytale for children” written by Sergei Profokiev in 1936. The piece includes narration that tells the story while the orchestra illustrates it with sound. The illustrated picture book by Chris Raschka brings the story to life through images as well. You can find the entire Peter and the Wolf soundtrack on Spotify, or watch the live orchestra performance linked below. Then spend the next 30 minutes snuggled up with your kids enjoying the orchestra’s melodies while enjoying the twists and turns of this classic kids fairytale. 

Watch: an orchestral performance of Peter and the Wolf, presented by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Singing Stonewall: Classical Composers and Musicians Commemorate Stonewall 50 Year Anniversary with Choral and Opera Works

Pictured: Stonewall Inn by yosoynuts / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Natalie Skowlund

On Saturday, June 22, 2019, people from around North Carolina’s triangle area converged at Durham’s Carolina Theatre for a night of choral arts featuring four acclaimed regional choirs. What set this performance apart from other choral concerts, however, was the piece at its center: Quiet No More!: A Choral Celebration of Stonewall. This new, eight-movement piece was commissioned by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

In Durham, the Common Woman Chorus, the Triangle Gay Men’s Chorus, and the Triad Pride Men’s and Women’s Choruses all joined together to perform the piece for a North Carolina audience. Nationally, this piece makes history as the largest ever collaboration between LGBTQ+ choirs, with more than 25 choruses performing the piece this spring in cities such as Denver, San Diego, and New York City. 

A convergence of new choral and operatic classical pieces focused around Stonewall comes at the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Stonewall is remembered as a historic event that would help catalyze the movement for LGBTQ+ rights and equality across the U.S. The series of confrontations between gay rights activists and police at Stonewall began after NYC police staged a raid on a bar called the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969. The Stonewall Inn itself was a well-known LGBTQ+ meeting place in Greenwich Village.Classical music composers and musicians across the country have not overlooked the opportunity to commemorate Stonewall in music, particularly with pieces for voice.

Perhaps most notably, the Stonewall opera by Iain Bell and Mark Campbell made its debut with the New York City Opera at the Rose Theatre last Friday, June 21. Stonewall is part of NYC Opera’s longer-term initiative to incorporate an LGBTQ+ themed production each year during Pride month.

A New York Times review of the opera called it “groundbreaking” for including the first ever transgender role for a transgender singer. Yet, the review also recognizes the opera’s “impossible undertaking” of trying to fit the entirety of Stonewall’s historical significance into an opera with a run-time of less than 90 minutes. The confines of performance pose a real challenge to representing the diversity of identities and historical nuances that made Stonewall a catalyst for the U.S. gay rights movement. 

Other new classical responses to Stonewall include the Stonewall Operas (with a confusingly close name to NYC Opera’s commissioned piece), and Moonlite, a choral opera by Wally Gunn. The Stonewall Operas are a series of four mini-operas, each 30 minutes long, written by graduate students of NYU’s Musical Theatre Writing Program. The Operas were co-produced with the American Opera Project. WQXR’s review of the Operas noted that one performance in late May 2019 was even staged in the cramped and dark second floor of the historic Stonewall Inn, lending a tangibly gritty ambience to the performance’s serious subject matter.

Moonlite, written by emerging composer Wally Gunn, is described as a “choral opera.” Named after the folk legend Captain Moonlite, supposed to be a “gay Australian outlaw,” Moonlite explores the internal struggles of queerness through voice. Quoted in a Philadelphia Inquirer feature, Gunn described the performance as: “Men will sing in falsetto. There will be unflattering vowel sounds at times to convey harshness. Sometimes it’ll be more like being inside the head of some of the characters and the many voices we live with inside our heads.”

Moonlite was performed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Princeton, New Jersey in mid-May 2019. Uniting a politically-contentious historical commemoration with the world of classical music raises the question: What value does music have in connecting us to prominent political events or social issues?

In fact, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience from April 2018 found that highly empathic people often process music as more than an art form, experiencing it in some cases as if it were an encounter with another person. The study’s authors suggest in their conclusion, “If music can function something like a virtual ‘other,’ then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others.”

Can bringing Stonewall to light through classical performance open an audience up to empathize with the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community both then and now? The jury is still out. At the very least, however, the salient emotion of human voices singing a story long-hidden can remind us of the ways in which diverse identities persist in coming together to perform cohesive and inspiring works of art, despite challenges.