Classical Bash

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Whenever the topic of music comes around, people almost invariably ask what I listen to; and when I say "classical" they invariably look at me and wonder out loud, "why?" To which I almost invariably respond, "why not?"

My conversion from pop culture (an oxymoron if ever there were one) to classical took place in the late 1970s. For those of you who are too young to remember the 70s or who were too stoned to remember them, this was the age of disco when all the tunes began to sound alike, when the beat was the same in almost every similar tune, and when sane people began to ask themselves: "Do we really want to be doing "The Hustle" when we're in our thirties and forties?"

In my case the answer was a resounding "NO!" I had already been familiarized with a certain amount of classical. First through the obligatory grade school production of "The Nutcracker," and then through the film score of "2002: A SPACE ODYSSEY." Later, in 1977, I would take the official and permanent dive when I both, discovered the orchestra soundtrack to "STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE," and came across a pair of Classical music stations in northern Illinois (WNIU-89.5 FM out of DeKalb/Rockford, and WFMT 98.7 out of Chicago).

I knew my life had changed the first time that I heard the Beethoven "SYMPHONY NUMBER 9 IN D MINOR, 'THE CHORAL' OPUS 125." Initially, I stuck to Beethoven, getting accustomed to the symphonies and concerti and then gradually fanning out to sample the sonatas, chamber works, choral works, FIDELIO, and finally the more obscure masterpieces. Once I seemed to understand what Beethoven was all about, I began to sample other composers. Bach, Brahms, and Chopin were next, followed by Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I still wasn't into opera, but that changed when a friend introduced me to--of all things--a Sondheim musical, the infamous "SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET," which, for some odd reason led me into the operas of Mozart (think "DON GIOVANNI" and "THE MAGIC FLUTE," followed in turn by "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO," and "LA CLEMENZA DI TITO," etc). Mozart opera led me back into Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart in general: the symphonies, concerti, chamber works, ad infinitum. At the same time my interest in SWEENEY TODD led me (naturally) into Mahler, who put me on a path which led to Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and--of course--Richard Wagner. As you can tell by now, I was gravitating towards the heavy Germans, but then a friend recommended Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. All right, it took a few years before I could appreciate French Impressionism in music. But the ironic thing about all of this is that when I finally learned to appreciate Ravel and Debussy, it did not come through the standard, "BOLERO," but through Ravel's ballet "DAPHNIS and CHLOE," the "G MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO," and the "D MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO FOR THE LEFT HAND." These were followed quickly by Debussy's "THREE NOCTURNES" and the haunting "PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN." Of course I had no sooner developed an interest in the French "impressionists" but what I discovered one of Ravel's orchestration pupils, an English composer, named Ralph Vaughn Williams.

To make a long story short, it didn't take long before I wanted to collect the various pieces I had been listening to into a personal collection. Today, my shelves are crammed full of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes which are in desperate need of filing and labeling. And yet, some reason, I still collect. From time to time I ask myself "why?" And the answer keeps going back to the 70s.

At a certain point pop music no longer presented a challenge. Nor was it especially attractive. Maybe it's me, but I tend to be attracted to music which requires a certain degree of patience. Maybe I outgrew the attention deficit disorder that all males go through in their late teens and early twenties. Or, perhaps the music itself had something to do with it.

When I listen to Beethoven--and you might as well know that Beethoven remains my absolute favorite to this very day--I find myself transported to another place and time. Indeed, there are moments when that time and place seems to beyond the natural confines of the natural universe. Classical music, Beethoven in particular, is about something. You can feel the emotional and psychological state of the composer. True, a little in in the way of musical education and some knowledge about the composers' lives didn't hurt, but for the most part the music tends to speak for itself. No, you can't tell that Beethoven was in a deep, nearly suicidal depression when he wrote his jubilant "SYMPHONY NUMBER 2 IN D, OPUS 36," but from the twists and turns that the SECOND takes at nearly every turn you understand that the man and his art were/are a lot more complicated than anything KC and the Sunshine Band might have to offer.

At any rate, my conversion began officially in 1977 and was completed by 1979. At that point I had more or less parted company with pop culture, although I did develop side interests in folk, jazz, and world music, none of which rivaled my affection for the great masters and their creations.

So, if you still need to ask I can only tell you this. Classical never fails to satisfy. It requires participation on the part of the listener. It asks you to become involved, unlike popular culture which does to you and turns you into a passive zombie. Moreover, when listening to Beethoven I get a feeling that each note is meant to follow the last; there is structure, not only in the music but in life, and perhaps in the universe itself.

I suppose that in some ways you might say that's the felling that someone might get from communing with a god.

July 30, 2005

Monday, July 25, 2005


Why is it that the best performances always seem to end up as premiums for orchestral fund raisers?

A few nights I ago I heard the best version of the Bruckner SYMPHONY NUMBER 6 In A MAJOR. It was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the late Rafael Kubelik, and surprise, surprise, it wasn't a commercial recording. Rather, it was a premium for those who had donated X number of dollars to for the Chicago Symphony Orchestrta.

It isn't that I'm against premiums, but I really wish that some of these recordings would be released to the general public. This was not a second rate performance. This was the Chicago Symphony at its absolute best, and yet it remains virtually unkown outside certain circles.

What would it take for the corporate powers that be to get their acts together and arrange for a public release of this and similar recordings which are currently buried in vaults and private collections?

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Pretend that you have just been exiled to a small tropical island. Your place of exile will include a small residence, a lifetime of provisions, and an ample power supply to last for the rest of your life. Now the tricky part. You'll be supplied with a home entertainment center but you will only be allowed to take twenty of your favorite classical recordings. What twenty recordings would you take with you.? Mind you, you are only allowed twenty choices. Multiple CD sets are allowed. Note how I didn't come right out and ask "what are your twenty favorite classical recordings," although that probably would have been more direct. My choices are as follows:

1. THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN SYMPHONIES: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Georg Solti, the 1970s recordings.

I've always been rather fond of these. This was Solti at his "youthful" best, using all the repeats in powerful, accelerated performances. Indeed, the 6th and 9th rank among my favorite individual performances of these works..

2. THE BACH B MINOR MASS: The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra etc under Herbert VonKarajan

Need we say more?

3. THE COMPLETE MOZART PIANO CONCERTI: Daniel Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard.

These are little gems that shouldn't be missed under any circumstances. The tempi and balance between orchestra and soloist are nothing less than perfection.

4. THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN PIANO CONCERTI: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Alfred Brendl, piano/James Levine

Again--need we say more?

5. THE COMPLETE WAGNER RING CYCLE: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra etc/Sir Georg Solti

For those keen on megalomania, this is the place to go. The brass of the Vienna Philharmonic glows, and the performances--both orchestral and vocal are about as powerful as you could hope for. But for all the raw power there is also gentleness and tenderness here. Well done in every way.

6. THE COMPLETE MOZART SYMPHONIES: Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood

This was such a major undertaking, and they all work. Alternative versions of certain symphonies make the set even more fascinating.

7. THE COMPLETE CHOPIN NOCTURNES as performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

I've always liked the way Ashkenazy brings out the passion in these works.

8. THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES OF BRAHMS: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti

For those keen on large, masculine performances, these are the performances you have been looking for.

9. THE BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS VIOLIN CONCERTI: Single CD version featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch (in the Beethoven); the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner (in the Brahms) with violinist Jascha Heifitz.

With the above-mentioned soloist and orchestra forces do we really have to say anything more?

10. THE BEETHOVEN MISSA SOLEMNIS: The Berlin Philharmonic etc. under Herbert VonKarajan. His first recording.

This defies description. Not exactly what one would call a straight-laced performance it overwhelms and never fails to please.

11. THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES OF GUSTAV MAHLER: The London Philharmonic/Klaus Tennstedt

The London Philharmonic may not be the best orchestra in the world, but in Tennstedt's hands it became a weapon of mass destruction. Sadly, these performances also remind me as to how much I miss the late Maestro Tennstedt

12. THE VERDI REQUIEM: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Claudio Abbado

For those keen on critical editions

13. THE RAVEL PIANO CONCERTI: Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Alicia DeLarocha, piano/ Leonard Slatkin

What can I say? I love these works, and DeLarocha has such a delicate, precise touch.

14. THE MOZART REQUIEM (Beyer Edition): Academy St. Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner

This performance, in our humble opinion, is a definitive--strong and passionate. The Beyer edition corrects a number of "problems" which are found in the standard performing edition.

15. THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATAS: Alfred Brendl, second cycle from the late 1970s.

Mature Brendl. Some complained that the performances weren't emotional enough. We still don't know what they were talking about.


Ma may be a bit of a yo yo, but his professionalism is undeniable.

17. THE COMPLETE BRANDENBURG CONCERTI of J.S. BACH Academy of Anicent Music/Christopher Hogwood

At last a harpsichordist who doesn't treat the harpsichord like a background instrument. A very pianistic treatment of the instrument. Moreover, the smaller forces at play allow the various textures to sound through.


Same reasoning as above.

Orchestra/Andre Previn

I love this work. Complete performances are rare, and this one is well performed in every way, as Tchaikovsky would have wanted it done.

20. RACHMANINOFF PIANO CONCERTO NUMBER 3: New York Philharmonic/Vladimir Horwotiz/ Eugene Ormandy.

The New York Philharmonic and Eugene Ormandy were not my favorites, but for Vladimir Horowitz they had to get their act together. This performance defies description.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Question of the Day - 7/20/05

Hi, everyone!

I'm instituting a Question of the Day. It'll be relevant to the blog, of course. Here's how the format works: every day, someone will post a new question. Now, we could do this in a kind of, "every one has a certain day they post, etc" kind of fashion, but I really would prefer to do it more organically than that. If you log on and see that a question hasn't been posted, if you've got one, feel free to pose it. You could always post and say, "This question is for tomorrow, etc," in case someone beats you to it. It doesn't have to be equal responsibility, anyone can post as many or as few as they like. By default, I nominate myself to be resident question-asker. If someone else wants to, just let me know, that's fine by me. If you just want to scrap the idea of a daily question, that's fine too, but again, let me know. Thanks!

Today's question:

In your opinion, is it ok for modern performers to transcribe pieces for other instruments? For example, Joshua Bell's 2003
Romance of the Violin includes at least nine pieces written originally for other instruments/voice. Does this enhance the piece (if done well, of course) or does it only render disservice?

Personally, I enjoy it when artists transcribe songs for other instruments. After hundreds of years of same-ish interpretations, how much more bold can you get to couple it with an entirely different sound? I suppose original instruments purists would argue that the composer intended it to be heard a certain way, which is a valid argument. However, does that mean they only listen to Bach if it's on a harpsichord? I bet they don't. There aren't enough good recordings out there today. I once heard the Brandenburg Concertos on a harpsichord and I wanted to throw up. The evildoer in question (aka the performer), whoever they were, couldn't play the instrument properly and ended up muddling the rhythm entirely. It just became a mess of plucked strings and you know what? That doesn't sound very good. I'm sure Bach was just rolling around in that grave of his. I was practically rolling around and I'm still alive, that's for sure. As long as the transcriber keeps the original spirit of the piece, I don't see why playing it on another instrument can hurt any. After all, shouldn't we embrace creativity in the fullest? That's what those composers were doing when they wrote the music, too. Why bother squelching it now? And that's my two cents on that. :)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Who WOULDN'T you invite?

Ok, to turn this around on everyone (because I like the Yankee trick of answering a question with a question), who wouldn't you invite to the party? We'll stick with five as the default but feel free to include more or less.

Here's mine (in no particular order):

1. The guy who wrote
Sleigh Ride, Leroy Anderson. He's been the bane of my musical existence since the first time I heard the song. A classic, yes. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

2. Anyone who's ever written anything atonal. It might be art but it still doesn't sound good.

3. Mozart. I fully admit the man was a musical genius. Does anyone really want an egotistical jerk sitting around, monopolizing the conversation, marveling at his ability to put up with people who are so clearly inferior? Gee...thanks, but no thanks. Then again, I always was rather curious to see how he would have ended the
Requiem, too. Ok. He's tentative.

4. David Foster. True, he's not classical but he's still giving "composer" a bad connotation.

I can't think of any more right now but if I do, I'll edit this list...


Who Would You Invite?

Assuming you have the required supernatural powers and the financial resources to pull it off, what five composers would you most like to invite to your house for a semi-formal meal and an afternoon of stimulating conversation.

Mine are as follows:

1. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: My absolute idol. Not only would I ask him about composition and his feelings about the bloody, hypocritical Napoleon; I would also ask him just who in the hell the Immortal Beloved really was. And while we're at it--would he please be so kind as to improvise for us?

2. WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: An afternoon with a musical genius. Could it get any better than that? Not only would be be the life of the party. this would be a fine opportunity for him to offer a few opinions as to how HE would have finished the Requiem.

3. RICHARD WAGNER: I would love nothing more than to watch Beethoven and Wagner go at it. I'd like to ask Herr Wagner where his ideas about the Jews, the French, and the Jesuits came from. And while I'm at it, I'd like to know what he would have thought of the Hitler regime. Would he want his name associated with the Nazis or not?

4. PETER I TCHAIKOVSKY: This might be a risk, but could a man as moody as Tchaikovsky be boring? Probably not. More importantly I'd like to ask the all important question: DID YOU REALLY COMMIT SUICIDE? OR WAS IT AN ACCIDENT?

5. GUSTAV MAHLER: I'd like to pick his brain on on the finer points of orchestration. I might ask him why he re-orchestrated the Schumann Symphonies and the Beethoven 9th. And since he was both, a composer and an opera conductor, he and Wagner might have some INTERESTING conversations. Wagner might not appreciate his Jewish heritage, but he (Wagner) can learn to love it.

Any suggestions? Daniel

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Brandon, Beethoven, and Friends

When the young man who would eventually become my best friend and surrogate son moved in with me in February 2003, I knew the two of us were going to find ourselves in the middle of a never ending culture war over the the kind of music he listened to. I had given up on the rock/pop scene in the late 1970s at the height of the disco craze (talk about sperfificial) and had switched over to almost entirely classical by the end of 1978. In other words, at the time "the kid" moved in, I was a 45-year-old male who needed his morning fix of Beethoen or Wagner in the same way that a caffeine addict might need a cup of coffee. Brandon, on the other hand, was a self-assured and very self-directed young man who loved heavy metal and rap. Despite my political inclinations, which lean decidedly to the left, my musical tastes are rather conservative. Some might say reactionary. So I knew the differences between us--in so far as music were concerned--would be a major problem unless I took immediate action.

Admittedly, I could have clamped down and said, "this is my house, take it to your room," but that would have been counter productive. Coercion wasn't going to work. I could see that much from the get go. That meant that the only viable options were suggestions and education, and I played them to the hilt. It didn't take long to realize that Brandon was more interested in rhythm and loud, walls of sound than in anything else. All right. What could I do with that? Well, as it turned out, plenty. Can you say, "Igor Stravinksy?" Can you say "The Right of Spring?"

Watching the expression on Brandon's face as he listened, for the first time, to the relentless rhythm's and unrelenting dissonances of Stravinsky's early 20th Century masterpiece was a sheer delight. Was this, I wondered, the same expression I had worn when I heard the Beethoven "9th Symphony" for the first time in the late 1970s?

Possibly, I told myself.

From "The Rite of Spring," we hopped back to the Beethoven "7th Symphony." And then forward to Bela Bartok's "Music For Strings Percussion and Celesta." From there we went on to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," and to Mahler, and to Bruckner (the original, but seldom herd 1874 version of the Bruckner "4th Symphony" is a staple in hour household), and to Richard Strauss, and of course, Wagner.

All right, as of this writing Brandon still isn't interested in the Baroque nor Classical periods; and there are certain Romantic composers who I know he will never learn to appreciate. Offhand, the names Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Verdi come to mind. But as a trade off, he loves 20th Century masters such as Gershwin, Ravel, and Shostakovich etc.

Of course he's only been listening for two years. It took yours truly the better part of six years before he was comfortable with Mahler, and another year after that before I truly enjoyed Mahler. In other words, if I give "the kid" a little time and allow him the process of self-discovery, he might just reach the point where he not only respects, but actually enjoys the pieces which currently offer him little to no pleasure. In my case it took a wonderful performance of the Mahler "9th Symphony" with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. True to form, my affection for the performance developed into a genuine affection for the piece itself, which evolved quikcly into an affection for Mahler in general.

In other words, give him time. Things may happpen.

Nearly thirty years ago, I thought the sun rose and set with pop music. Today. I wonder if the term "pop culture" isn't an oxymoron. Granted, there are still days when I derive a certain amount of pleasure from my old Beatles albums, but at the end of the day I'm still fiercely loyal to Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Bruckner, Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and above all others, Beethoven.

I can still recall the first time that I heard the Beethoven 9th Symphony. It was 1979, and I had made the decision that I did not want to be listening to disco when I was in my mid thirties or forties. Moreover, I wanted something that was a little more substantial than the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. The Beethoven 9th provided everything I had been looking for--and more. There was depth here. There was feeling, emotion, and, perhaps more importantly, complexity. It was enough. More than enough. Beethoven opened the doors to a new and exciting world. To this day, I have no desire to go back to the past. I'm happy with Ludwig.

Beethoven never fails to please. Beethoven offers a sense of comfort. Beethoven offersa sense of permanence in a confusing, often hostile world. Beethoven never fails to please. You might say that Beethoven, like Brandon, is a faithful and loyal friend.

Friday, July 15, 2005

I'm going to repost what Jeff said in here:

"I have some pre-Boston Bops recordings of Fiedler in which he conducts Mozart Divertimenti. In these performances you find a conductor who is as dedicated to perfection and minute detail as a Reiner or a Toscanini. We tend to remember the friendly old man from the album covers and TV broadcasts, but Fieldler could be an absolute tyrant on the podium. Not that I'm complaining. The final products were worth all the trouble. The performances glow and glimmer, excellence gleaming through the limited recording technology of the era."

I always had the feeling that Fiedler was like that. I mean, after all, the Boston Pops
is "America's Orchestra," and it probably wouldn't look so great to have a modern incarnation of a musical Hitler up at the podium. It's nice to know that he could be like that, though. I get the feeling, however, that Williams and Lockhart are the same way: nice guys, fantastic musicians and composers...but don't cross them in rehearsal. Sure, they're nice guys in the PR sense but I wouldn't mess around with them, that's for sure.

I've been listening to a lot of slow, contemplative piano lately. And there's nothing that fits that description better than Erik Satie's "Gymnopédies." I like 1 and 3, two never really grew on me. It's the sort of thing you listen to when it's raining outside. Or you're just feeling lazy. Which, let's face it, most of the time, I am. They're just really good songs to have on in the background. I mean, sure, they're nice to listen to on their own but they're so minimalist that there's not necessarily all that muc there to "listen" to. I think of them as the type of song that you absorb, rather than make a conscious effort and listen. Which is one of the things that makes Satie so great, is that they make great pieces just on their own but you don't have to go out of your way to listen, you can kind of just absorb them, almost with like osmosis or something. And for the terminally lazy, that's a great composer...;)

And just for fun...

See, he LOOKS like a nice guy...

...till someone gets it in the eye with the baton...;)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Welcome to Classical Bash!

Hello and welcome to the Classical Bash blog! This is the place to spout off about classical music, like favorite performances/performers, likes, dislikes, whatever happens to come to mind. It's not just about classical, either! Should you like to introduce another related musical genre, feel free! Mostly, though, it's going to be about classical.

A little about me: my name is Kate. I've been a pianist for 16 years now--gosh, that makes me sound old--and I've loved classical music since I was a kid. My favorite composers are Bach (J.S.) and Chopin but I'll listen to pretty much anything where classical is concerned. Though I have to say, I've been listening to quite a bit of Beethoven lately, though I usually stick to the piano repertoire where he's concerned. Other than that, music is pretty much my life. It's GREAT!

About my cohort, Jeff: I'm going to let him fill in most of his background but I will say that we met through my job at a local library. We got to talking about music and lo and behold, here we are.

Other than that, not much to fill in for the first post. I wanted to get all the background-y stuff out of the way but now that's done, so...ON TO THE MUSIC!

To start off the discussion...

I suppose I'll start this off...

Let's see, a topic...

technically, this isn't classical but hey...CLOSE ENOUGH. Any problems with that? Yeah, that's right, I didn't think so.

I must get this out: BOSTON POPS. I'm sort of rediscovering them as of late and holy crap, they're amazing! It's been so long since I watched
Evening at Pops to begin with and tonight, they're having Kristen Chenowith! YAY! So that'll be fun. I have to say, though, that Keith Lockhart is my favorite of the Big Three. The Big Three being conductors, of course. And those three being Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Lockhart. Now, Fiedler was fantastic, don't get me wrong, but...I like the other direction Williams and Lockhart took the Pops. Williams, of course, had the whole film thing going and it worked for him, seeing as how he's pretty much the best film composer like EVER. Ok, maybe he's a tie with John Corigliano (The Red Violin). Then there's Lockhart. When I first saw him, he'd JUST been appointed the new conductor, it was some time right after that, so early to mid-1995. I was...eleven. And honest to goodness, the first thing that came out of my mouth after I saw him conduct was, "He's so...BOUNCY!" And it's true, he is. In fact, here's a little bit of an article I read:

His style of conducting is so physical that the 42-year-old maestro actually has a torn rotator cuff, an injury more common to baseball pitchers. His physical therapist, who works with Olympic athletes, performs deep tissue massage on his shoulder a couple of days a week and tells him, 'You have one of the most messed up shoulders I've ever dealt with.'" (Deseret News, March 29, 2003)

Now that's conducting. In fact, Jeff and I were having the discussion that to be a great conductor, you have to be some kind of tyrant. The prime example, of course, being Toscanini. As far as I'm aware, nobody beats him for tyrantness. Unless, of course, you were my high school band director. Well, actually, our choir director was worse...she would come and direct if the band director wasn't there...nobody liked those days...anyway. Now, we've decided (I think) that there are two kinds of tyrants: the regular tyrants and the "nice" tyrants. Williams and Lockhart fall under the latter category and I think a lot of conductors do today. Sort of like, they're really nice guys but I wouldn't want to screw up while they're on the podium, that's for sure.

Any other thoughts on conductors? I'd like to see how a Toscanini fares today, wouldn't you? I wonder if anyone would stand for it. LOL I would, I'd be too afraid I'd get stabbed with a baton or something.

So, that's it for my rant at the moment. I might add later...feel free to jump right in!