You can be fairly sure that classical music is getting the message across when you see a big gray teddy bear hanging over the side of the first tier in Verizon Hall, waving his paws in the air to tunes from Danny Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The bear wasn't intended to be part of the show at Saturday morning's first of five Philadelphia Orchestra family concerts this season, but of course the orchestra has a future only to the extent that it draws such waves from fuzzy young patrons.
The tool for making connections at the hour-long concert was Halloween, and not only did children come costumed, but so did some musicians - a squid-cellist, chef-percussionist, a mariachi band in the viola section, a papal concertmaster. Violinist Philip Kates appeared as young Brahms - oh, well, that's just how he always looks.
If the sartorial expressions were purely personal, the repertoire was linked skillfully to the idea that an entire orchestra can slip on a costume, too, in the words of conductor Michael Butterman. With a series of excerpts, punctuated by the merry stage presence of actor Michael Boudewyns as host, orchestral imagery was spelled out for families.
The orchestra's flutes were a watery, bubbling life-source at the start of Smetana's The Moldau. The ensemble puffed and lurched to a not-quite-full-speed train in the first minute or so of Honegger's Pacific 231. We climbed inside the terrifying clock signaling midnight's dissolution of magic in Prokofiev's Cinderella. And dancers from the Rock School appeared as guests at the ball in the "Waltz" from Khachaturian's Masquerade.
Longer excerpts were rolled out cautiously. It's always hard to predict attention spans in an audience of children as old as the lower double digits, as well as a sprinkling of balky babies, but Butterman prepared the audience to listen for the rise and fall of waves and the gruff sultan in "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Spooky percussion and brass jumping out from dark corners in Adam Glaser's March of the Little Goblins needed no translation.
It was terrific to hear the orchestra dipping a toe into Elfman's Nightmare music, even without the vocals. The surprising staying power of the 1993 film can be largely credited to the score, an unusual mix of Broadway and pure classical (with a soulful flicker of klezmer). The suite falls nicely on the sound of this orchestra - Butterman dressed as Jack Skellington here - and is an obvious bridge for newbies. And in case it needs pointing out, not just the youngest ones.