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Orchestrated for the kids

For your typical kid, a classical music concert can be pretty uncomfortable. Downright imposing, frankly.

First, they have to dress up in those scratchy clothes and cruel shoes. Then mom and dad drive them down to some schmancy arts center, where they have to sit up straight and absolutely quiet for a few interminable hours and pretend not to be staring at the giant mole on the back of the blue-haired lady's neck.

Jeez! It's no wonder that most kids prefer Barney and Mr. Bean.

The folks at the Florida Orchestra understand; they've felt Little Johnny's pain. And they've come up with a pleasing solution: Kids-Time Classics, a one-hour concert in a family-friendly atmosphere where kids can be, well, kids.

"They're allowed to squirm, sit on the floor if they want to," says Thomas Wilkins, the orchestra's resident conductor. "That's the whole gist of doing the program."

The program in this case is the Music Around the World series, a mini international tour of the world's greatest composers. And the music _ it's genuine high culture and all, but the selections are fun. Rossini's Overture to Barber of Seville (tough to describe in print, but instantly recognized by every Bugs Bunny fan). Stuff by Tchaikovsky, the Swan Lake-Nutcracker guy. And even the Hoedown from Copland's Rodeo ballet. Yee-haw!

What's more, each kid will be issued a passport before the show, for which he or she gets visa stamps for stopping at various "countries." In France, the kids will get to try their hands at drawing to impressionist music. In Germany, they can play Alpine bells.

Think back to when you were a kid and your parents took you somewhere special. What was your most favorite part of all? The petting zoo, of course. And while the orchestra's "animals" don't need to be fed, they can be petted, strummed, tooted, sawed or banged upon. And they rarely, if ever, bite.

The idea behind the program, says Wilkins, is to offer something that parents can do with their kids. And judging by the attendance of last month's show in Pinellas _ 800 people turned out _ the orchestra has struck a sympathetic chord.

"It was great, a real carnival atmosphere," Wilkins said. "I am more pleased about this series than I have been about anything else all year long."

So pleased, in fact, that another "family-friendly" series is planned for the spring: "Music in Motion," featuring some of the fastest and most furious compositions the old masters ever wrote. (Rossini's William Tell Overture springs to mind.) In addition, concertgoers will be encouraged to dust off their old horns and join the orchestra onstage for a "play along" version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

"We may have to run through it three or four times to accommodate everyone," Wilkins joked.

All said, the Kids-Time Classics series seems to bridge the gap between serious music and serious fun. And as for Little Johnny, making elephant noises with the trumpet at the petting zoo, remember what Peter Tchaikovsky's piano teacher wrote of his most famous student: "There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that suggested a composer."