A mouse finds shelter from the snow in a concert hall. As the musicians set up for a rehearsal, he discovers the sights and sounds of the orchestra, followed by the excitement of a live performance. This picture book is accompanied by a CD narration of the story together with a selection of concert classics.
As a child, classical music played an important role in our family. My father, who is still a talented amateur trumpet player, regularly blasted out tunes as he rehearsed for his next concert, and my sisters and I were encouraged to play an instrument from a young age. So, I was excited to come across Maximus Musicus visits the orchestra during my research into picture books from Iceland. Written, illustrated and translated by members of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, this longer-style picture book immerses the reader in the sights and sounds of classical instruments and music.
It’s a whole new world for Maximus Musicus, the furry protagonist of the tale, as I imagine it might be to many readers. Maxi hears unfamiliar sounds, the ‘Plink, plinnk’ of the harp and ‘Grurrr, grurrr’ of the double bass; he gets a token wash when a musician empties her French horn over him; and he discovers sticky brown rosin and double reeds. Some of this might seem a bit strange, but great care has been taken to demystify the content, in both the text and accompanying illustrations. Additionally, explanatory notes are provided at the end of the book in a handy ‘Did you know’ section, and the end pages depict and label the instruments of the orchestra.
The story is sprinkled with moments of humour. My favourite is when Maxi falls into a tuba only to shoot up into the air as the player blows with all his might into the mouthpiece. The accompanying illustration is wonderful: the musician is pink in the face, with cheeks puffed out and glasses askew … as a tiny brown mouse flies out of the instrument. Another fun moment is when Maxi tries to emulate the violinists and play his whisker with his tail!
Author Hallfríður Ólafsdóttir’s passion for and knowledge of music really shines through the narrative as she takes the reader through Ravel’s Boléro, the orchestral piece the musicians are rehearsing. As the violinists play, she describes “Timeless notes entwined through the air like magic threads weaving an invisible web.” The choice of music is clever as each individual instrument has a chance to be heard before the orchestra come together as one. Personally, though, I find the Boléro passage a little too long and descriptive; I would prefer to listen to the recording on the accompanying CD and use the book and illustrations as support. Or, better still, attend one of the live concert performances of Maximus Musicus, which is where I think this story really comes into its own.
In the final section of the book, there is less focus on the individual instruments as we share in the excitement of concert night: the bright lights, magnificent sounds and silence, and Maxi’s response to them. And I love that the story ends with a galloping rendition of the folk song Á Sprengisandi, the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra’s favourite encore.
Þórarinn Már Baldursson’s many cartoon-like illustrations have a wonderfully warm expressive quality, and they enliven and enlighten the text on every page. Not only a talented illustrator, but also an experienced orchestral musician, he has given each character a unique and believable identity. A bassoonist leans gently towards his instrument, eyes closed, feet crossed as he plays a melody; a clarinet player studies his score, possibly counting the bars until his entry. And the double spread showing the whole orchestra at the concert – the only double spread in the book – is triumphant in its composition and detail. Credit is also due to oboist and translator Daði Kolbeinsson for a narrative that flows beautifully – and musically – from start to finish.
Maximus Musicus visits the orchestra is a valuable, informative and light-hearted introduction to orchestral instruments and music, which is accessible to musicians and non-musicians alike. The CD is an enjoyable listen. As well as providing a narration of the story, it includes some magnificent passages of classical music played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
Maximus Musicus visits the orchestra by Hallfríður Ólafsdóttir, illustrated by Þórarinn Már Baldursson, translated by Daði Kolbeinsson (first published in Icelandic by Forlagið hf., 2008; this edition Music Word Media Group, 2012)
Hallfríður Ólafsdóttir is the principal flautist of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. She has always loved children’s literature.
Þórarinn Már Baldursson is a violist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and has been drawing since he was a child. He is passionate about traditional Icelandic culture.
Daði Kolbeinsson was born Duncan Campbell in Scotland, but took an Icelandic name when he moved to Iceland in the 1970s. He is a former principal oboist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
If you’re interested in a taster of Maximus Musicus live, take a look at this video clip from the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. The story, narrated by Australian comedian and actor Stephen Curry, starts at 8:18.