“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

Petrushka Explained for a 10-Year-Old

Through the eyes and ears of a child. Petrushka Illuminated.



One of the members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra viola section, a senior at Sharon High, invited some of his teachers to come to Symphony Hall for a concert. But when – due to COVID restrictions – the audience was barred, he contacted them during the afternoon to ask them instead to watch the livestream. The next day he got a letter from his English teacher, Mrs. Weishaar:

Dear Matthew,

My daughter (10) and I just watched the Petrushka piece. It was beyond lovely. Her reactions: “sad, cool, suspenseful;” then, “I felt it – how Petrushka felt;” and finally “really, really good and talented.” Throughout the piece she was rooting for Petrushka to win the ballerina. I asked why, and she replied: “I just know that they belong together!”

I felt much of the same but gave more attention to how the music created all those feelings she identified. I also imagined the hours spent rehearsing and thought about what an amazing experience you have shared with your fellow musicians. I was really touched at the end when the musicians stomped their feet for the effect of what should have been thundering applause from the audience. It was an eerie reminder that you were playing to an absent crowd in such a grand hall.

When Matthew shared that letter with me, what specially struck me, apart from the impossibly cute comment from the young lady, was her mother’s question about how music can create emotional reactions in a ten-year-old. With all the unexpected time on my hands, I decided to put together and then record a detailed description of the ballet, so that a 10-year-old could be enabled to get behind the story and come to appreciate the music.

Here is a video of  the performance by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, on March 12th 2020 in Symphony Hall. At the bottom of the screen there are subtitles telling the story. Listen to the music from beginning to end before you do anything else. Imagine in your mind what is happening in the story, get to know the characters – perhaps, like Natasha, you will start to take sides – feel the way that the story is told through the music.

Stravinsky: Petrushka

Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

Now we are going to find out how Stravinsky tells the story
The ballet is divided in to 4 parts. I want you to listen to just one part each day (NO CHEATING).
It’s like a Winnie-the-Pooh story; you really only want to hear one a day.
On the 4th day, when you get to the end of the story there will a surprise.

Petrushka Explained for a 10-Year-Old

Stravinsky: Petrushka

Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

— March 12th 2020

The Story Continues


`When I started writing my explanation I, of course, did not know the girl’s name, so I put “Linda” in as a placeholder. Then I thought, “This is a Russian story. It couldn’t possibly be Linda, it must be Natasha.” Imagine my surprise when I asked Mrs. Weishaar her daughter’s name, to be told that it was Natalie, the American form of the Russian

Natalia, or Natasha. So, for this very Russian project, Natasha became her name. I imagined that as this explication of Petrushka went out to other children stranded at home with their parents and teachers looking for inspiring material, that Natasha was going to become like Christopher Robin, helping to introduce other children to

Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor, instead of the stuffed animals in the Winnie-the- Pooh stories and that is what led me to the idea of adding the “surprise.”


Here is a lovely letter from Mrs. Weishaar and the beautiful and touching “white sheet” from Natalie herself:

Dear Ben,

I am writing on behalf of Natalie, who thoroughly enjoyed your narrative explanation and the surprise. She prepared a “white sheet” for you which I have attached. She wrote it by herself and means every word of it! This experience has been very meaningful to her and me, and we have enjoyed our time together listening to you and your performers. You seem to be a natural at reaching out to ten-year-old’s. She was able to follow along with your explanations and reacted with surprise, wonder, and joy when you become particularly passionate in your descriptions. We plan to share your lessons with some of our friends and other teachers because we expect that they and their children will learn from and enjoy it, too.

— — —

Dear Mr. Zander,

Hi, I’ve heard that you have some of your students write “white sheets”. So, I’m going to do a white sheet on Petrushka and how I understand it. I loved that when you explained it, you really felt it as much as I. You made me understand the piece as well as get to know Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina.

Although I still don’t know what the Ballerina saw in the Moor. In my head the characters come to life and I see everything. I also loved (spoiler alert) and you made the characters dance in my head again. Now if you could guess, what do you think happened to the Moor and the Ballerina? Did they get married? Did the Ballerina marry Petrushka’s ghost? Thank you so, so much for getting in touch with me and my mom. It has really changed my life. I’m sure you’ve spent a long time doing the recording just for me.

Thank you, Natalie Weishaar

Petrushka performed by the BPO – twice!


I included the BPO recording of Petrushka because I felt it would be interesting for Natalie to hear a performance by a professional orchestra as well. I had two to choose from:

In 1998 a live performance, with Stephen Drury representing Petrushka in the concertante piano part, along with his extraordinary performance of the Ravel piano concerto, was issued as a commercial disc and was included in the CD collector’s bible: The 1999 Penguin Guide to CD’s with the following encomium:

a remarkably compelling account of Petrushka which is extraordinarily vivid in detail, yet everything is placed within natural perspective. Stravinsky’s score glows in its natural colours. The Boston playing is refined, yet the ballet’s narrative is most atmospherically conveyed. The result is uncommonly satisfying.

That live performance of Petrushka in Jordan Hall elicited this sentence from the Boston Globe’s critic:

Zander and the orchestra were alive in every measure as storytellers and scene painters, reciting the swirling, madcap joys and virulent nastiness of “Petrushka” with searing intensity and sharply focused gesture. The winds shimmering ostinati, the glinting edge of the concerted brass, Kathleen Boyd’s flute incantation and the trumpet solos of Jeffrey Work were especially delicious; but the whole performance left you feeling as though you had been struck by lightning – dazzled with all your molecules rearranged.

Isn’t it refreshing when a critic really lets fly with a full emotional response? It makes live music seem so very exciting.


The BPO performed Petrushka again with an almost entirely different wind and brass section in 2017 with the orchestra’s resident pianist Rasa Vittkauskaite playing Petrushka and Elmer Churampi, 1st trumpet of both the BPO and BPYO, just before he became Associate first trumpet of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Antonio Oliart’s state-of- the-art recorded sound provides an even more vivid impression.

You can judge for yourself which you prefer. White sheets welcome.

Petrushka performed by the BPO

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