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Ferdinand's Tale Set To Solo Violin

In the 1970s, "The Story of Ferdinand" was set to solo violin by British composer Alan Ridout. The musical version will be presented next weekend at the Kansas City Public Library by the Bach Aria Soloists.

By Sylvia Maria Gross


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The classic children's book The Story of Ferdinand was written in the 1930s by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. You might recognize its red cover and delicate black and white drawings.

The story is about a bull with an unusual pastime. While all the other little bulls would run around and butt their heads together, Ferdinand liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers.

The very simple, children's tale appealed to violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, founder of Bach Aria Soloists, because of the virtuosic technique it requires.

"I love the fact that he makes it very difficult and challenging for the violinist, and it shows you the music doesn't have to doesn't have to be elementary," Lane says. "We're not dumbing it down at all."

Lane says performances of Ridout's Ferdinand the Bull are pretty rare. She first heard it when she lived in London. When she decided Kansas City needed to hear the piece, she asked local actor Stuart Rider to narrate the story.

"I told Elizabeth on the phone, I could recite it for you off the top of my head, right now," Rider says the book was by far and away his favorite as a child. "Maybe I related to Ferdinand, I didn't want to be out playing hockey ... that it's OK to sit under the trees and smell the flowers."

Lane says she likes to point out to children the musical themes in the piece, like that of Ferdinand and the other little bulls. She says the composer tells the story through sound.

"The bulls are leaping and jumping and then Alan Ridout makes the violinist leap - my fingers are leaping to get to the higher intervals," she says. "It's really good word-painting."

For such a simple tale, the original story caused quite a stir when it was originally published in 1936. Though the writer Munro Leaf lived in the US, it was just 9 months before the start of the Spanish Civil War, and some saw it as a pacifist allegory.

But Lane and Rider hope children learn some other lessons.

"I would hope they would take away the value of sitting underneath a tree and staring off into space and not at their hands and their electronic devices . . . just to be able to enjoy the flowers," Rider says.

"I would say Munro's theme is it's very OK to be different. You don't have to be like everybody else and it's in fact great if you're not like everybody else," Lane says.

Listen to the audio to hear violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane and actor Stuart Rider rehearsing a section of Ferdinand the Bull.

This is one of the pieces the Bach Aria Soloists will be performing next Saturday at the central branch of the Kansas City Public Library in a program of stories and music. Friday night at the Plaza branch will be a special family performance just of Ferdinand the Bull, accompanied by the iconic pictures from the book. Both performances are free.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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