LONDON — The audience at St. John’s Notting Hill was a restless bunch. Some drooled and yelped while others slurped their drinks loudly. A few others grabbed each other to dance to the pieces by Beethoven, Dvorak and Vivaldi, and one even stealthily lifted a credit card out of another audience member’s handbag.
It certainly was not the usual staid affair that many expect from chamber music events, but that is the whole point behind Bach to Baby concerts, which are geared toward babies, toddlers, and their parents and caregivers.
“She just loves the music,” Anna Schmelcher, a German nanny, said of her 15-month-old charge, Josephine, whom she has taken to more than half a dozen concerts. “I am very into classical music and opera, and this is an opportunity for us to do something together that we both really enjoy.”
For people who spent their pre-child-rearing years attending operas, symphonies and concerts, having a baby can put a damper on accessing cultural events. Bach to Baby, created by the Chinese-Canadian concert pianist Miaomiao Yu in 2009, was set up to address this issue, giving parents the opportunity to enjoy quality music without stares and shushing. Bach to Baby’s other mission is to expose children to classical music (the group also holds concerts for other musical genres including opera, jazz and traditional folk) from an early age. Ms. Yu said babies as young as a few weeks old had attended shows.
From a first concert in London (where Ms. Yu lives with her husband and two young sons) in February 2011 where 300 people showed up, the program has grown exponentially. Now, across all of London’s boroughs, as well as in surrounding counties, there are about 50 Bach to Baby concerts each month, totaling around 600 live performances a year. This includes several concerts at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (tickets often sell out within 20 minutes). The schedule is online at www.bachtobaby.com/calendar/.
“The sessions are fun and accessible, well-priced and a brilliant opportunity for small children to hear good music at close range played on interesting instruments,” said Vicky Ireland, the founder of the British charity Action for Children’s Arts, who has attended Bach to Baby concerts with her granddaughter.
“We are a concert series that features all types of chamber music combinations including operatic repertoire,” Ms. Yu said. “We’ve had Bach to Broadway programs that feature everything from early opera all the way to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which are precursors to Broadway musicals, tracing the journey of song through 400 years.”
According to Ms. Yu, tens of thousands of children and parents have been to a Bach to Baby show over the last seven years, and this year the program expanded to Birmingham, England. Concerts in Oxford and Cambridge start next month. In January, Bach to School was started so that children who do not live near London or in the Midlands can have professional musicians come to their schools and perform. Ticket prices range from 8 to 12 pounds for an adult, or about $10.60 to $16 (children get in free).
“The sessions are fun and accessible, well-priced and a brilliant opportunity for small children to hear good music at close range played on interesting instruments,” said Vicky Ireland, the founder of the British charity Action for Children’s Arts, who has attended Bach to Baby concerts with her granddaughter. “Supporting engagement in culture and the arts at an early age is vital to encouraging attendance and participation in later life.”
Ms. Yu, who holds a master’s degree from London’s Royal Academy of Music, was inspired to start Bach to Baby when she was pregnant with her first son in 2009. She knew that a number of venues did not allow small children into performances, and she was concerned that becoming a mother could stifle her attendance at artistic happenings.
“Living in London, I used to love going to all these cultural events,” she said, “and one of the reasons Bach to Baby has been so successful is that we have captured the zeitgeist.”
It took almost a year to secure concert venues. “They would say to me, ‘Why do you think you can get an audience when during a regular classical music concert no one comes?’” she said. “And they would pat me on the head almost like, ‘Oh, isn’t this nice, you are a mom, you want to find something to do.’”
However, she persevered, and after that first concert, Bach to Baby took off.
“We had that concert, then we had another and then 10 others so it grew like that,” Ms. Yu, who is also a professor of piano at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, said with a chuckle.
While Bach to Baby approaches professional musicians to perform in concerts, musicians also often reach out to Bach to Baby.
“I’m a fan of musician-led enterprises, loved the concept and could tell a lot of work had gone into it,” said Georgia Mancio, a jazz vocalist and lyricist who participated in a show commemorating the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. “So despite not having much experience working with kids I said yes.”
Philip Smith, an English baritone who has sung at London’s Royal Opera House, has also enjoyed performing for Bach to Baby. Ms. Yu recalled one program where he “deftly moved” from excerpts from “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute” to “The Hippopotamus Song” by Flanders and Swann.
“In one concert, I had a little girl stand right in front of me and look absolutely spellbound by the singing,” Mr. Smith wrote in an email. “Halfway through the song she put her hands up to ask to be lifted up and how could you refuse? So the rest of the song was done with her in my arms.”
Ms. Yu said the expansion into Birmingham and the Midlands happened not only because it made sense geographically, only being a few hours from London, but also because “people have asked, ‘Why aren’t you here?’”
There have been requests from the United States and Canada and across Europe to open up Bach to Baby programs, but Ms. Yu said they don’t want to expand too rapidly because they are determined to ensure the quality of the performances. But that does not rule out plans for expansion down the road.
“Babies and small children haven’t been told yet that music is complicated, or difficult to understand, or boring, or any of the things that classical music can find itself fighting in modern society,” said the violinist Fenella Humphreys, who has performed in Bach to Baby shows. “Music is a universal language, there’s no barrier to age or language, so there’s no reason Bach to Baby wouldn’t work anywhere in the world.”