Monday, June 30, 2008

Haydn: The London Symphonies: Symphony #94 "Surprise"

We've already talked about how Haydn's London Symphonies should be a foundation item in any beginner's classical music collection. Over a series of posts, we'll cover six of these twelve delightful symphonies from a Philips CD recording of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: 6 "London" Symphonies (Nos. 94, 100, 101, 96, 103 and 104)
Philips, 1977/2001

Don't worry which of the London Symphonies to buy. They're all excellent and accessible to novice classical music listeners, and yet they contain beautiful passages and complex themes and melodies that bear repeated listens.

Better still, these symphonies are all quite brief, with the average symphony lasting around 25 minutes, and with movements lasting anywhere from four to eight minutes. Perfect for listening during a commute, or better still, in place of a content-free session of TV-watching.

Today we'll briefly deal with symphony #94 from this two-CD compact disc from Philips. We'll cover the remaining symphonies in future posts.

Listener notes for Symphony No. 94:
1) The "surprise" subtitle comes from the blasting chord that comes in about 30 seconds into the second movement. Supposedly Haydn said "the ladies will jump here" to a fellow composer. What a cad!

Of course the nature of "surprise" in classical music was defined upwards quite a bit by later composers (see for example Mahler's Second Symphony and the auditorially shocking transition from the 4th movement to the 5th movement). But I'm sure Haydn's little surprise was scandalous to audiences of the late 1700s.

2) You can clearly here the influence of Mozart in this work. Despite their difference in age (Haydn was some 24 years older than Mozart), the two composers were friends and greatly respected each other.

3) Recognize anything familiar about the second movement's key theme*? Haydn must have had a great sense of humor. You can tell he had a twinkle in his eye when writing this symphony.

* The theme is "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Closure of the Columbus Symphony

As a diehard lover of classical music, it always pains me to see articles like a recent one in the Wall Street Journal about the shutdown of the Columbus Symphony in Columbus, Ohio.

"On June 1, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra took what may be its final bows. Tears flowed from the musicians as well as from members of the capacity crowd in the Ohio Theatre."

"The 57-year-old orchestra is out of money. The symphony canceled its summer pops season and told the musicians that they would not be paid for the rest of the current contract, which ends Aug. 31."

What followed, in this article and in later letters to the editor*, was a stimulating debate on the role of the traditional classical music orchestra in the modern era.

Some of the quotes addressed the harsh truth that full orchestras are expensive, and some communities simply lack the scale to sustain one:

"I think that cities outside the very largest in this country must recognize that it is no longer possible to sustain a full-scale symphonic establishment, but that it is nonetheless well within their means to maintain a fine chamber ensemble, and that such a group would do credit and lend artistic luster to any urban area."
--letter to the editor, WSJ, June 26, 2008.

This letter writer went on to say that if fans want to see a Brahms symphony, they can go to Cleveland. As much as it pains me to say it, he has a point.

Other comments addressed the intractability of the musicians' union, and the irresponsible deficit spending of the orchestra's trustees.

There's enough blame here for everyone to have second helpings. Why on earth did this symphony think it could run several years of operating deficits? Why did it never have the foresight at some point over its 57-year history to establish an endowment?

Even not-for-profit organizations, as much as they think they are immune to the law of profits, are still subject to the laws of physics. You can't spend money you don't have and expect to survive.

Let's make sure we take an equally hard look at the musicians' union and its role here. What possible reason would drive the musicians' union to play a game of chicken, by walking out of negotiations and offering a desultory 6.5% pay cut "compromise" as part of an $11.1m budget that was likely to be in the red anyway? Is it better to look like you're driving a hard bargain and making smart negotiating ploys for your union--even if it results in the closure of your symphony and, definitionally, a 100% pay cut for everybody? How about setting aside all the positioning and negotiating tactics, and offering a viable solution instead?

And of course it's during an economic downturn (and Ohio, for a variety of reasons, is suffering a harsh one right now), that institutions on a marginal financial footing will fail.

And let's get one truth out in the open right now. As much as it pains this classical music lover to say it, classical music is a dead art to most Americans. You can even argue somewhat convincingly--this hurts me to say even more, but I'll say it anyway--that the symphonic era had its apogee in the 1800s. If you disagree, can you show me the Brahms and Beethovens of our era?

Worse, in today's era of overscheduled childhood, the barriers to competence in learning to play any orchestral instrument are too high. They require more time than kids have to spend. Ergo, kids just don't play in band anymore.

Given that backdrop, the one party that's not to blame is the Columbus, Ohio public, which supports their symphony as well as any mid-sized American city can be expected to in an era of challenged attention spans.

What does all of this mean? That marginal symphonies, especially the ones with a lack of fiscal restraint, will one by one drop off the map in many of America's second and third tier cities.

" orchestra must decide what it aspires to be -- and then find the funding to do it."--WSJ
If you're on the board of a symphony and you don't want it to become a statistic, get it on firm financial footing. Right now. Don't head into a recession with a weak balance sheet (e.g. the San Antonio Symphony) and operating deficits. Establish a permanent endowment. Get your costs down now, and develop a productive partnership with your musicians' union such that both sides have a stake in your symphony's long term survival.

And if you are a classical music lover, you too can help prevent your symphony from becoming a statistic. Buy season tickets. Bring friends to a concert and introduce them to this outstanding art form that deserves a much bigger audience than it has.

* Note: a WSJ online subscription may be necessary for access to this link.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gustav Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst's The Planets is an orchestral suite that sprang from Holst's personal interest in astrology. It consists of seven surprisingly varied movements, each one named after one of the planets (excluding, uh, Earth and Pluto).

Each movement illustrates that planet's astrological character, and thus the movements have names like Mars, the Bringer of War and Venus the Bringer of Peace. And of course who could forget Uranus, the Magician. (I dare you to say that last one out loud!)
James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Where is Earth and Pluto, you might ask? Well, you're standing on Earth, so it doesn't really play a role in astrology. And Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, long after this work was completed.

Of the seven movements, listeners will undoubtedly find Mars, Venus and Mercury compelling listening. But everyone's favorite (myself included) is Jupiter. It might be the most infectious classical music work of the entire 20th century.

A handful of listener notes:
1) Ah, the Chicago Symphony. In Mars, you can really hear my favorite brass section in the whole world really let it rip. Back when I used to play, I actually pulled a stomach muscle one time playing Mars in a rehearsal.

2) Hard to believe a wimpy and forgettable guy like Holst could write something as gripping and threatening as Mars, and then turn around and write something as tranquil and beautiful as Venus, and then compose something as joyous as Jupiter.

3) Listen at about the 1:35 mark in the Jupiter movement for what is probably the most recognizable passage in this entire seven-movement work. When those french horns introduce the main theme, backed up by the lower strings, it never fails to give me goosebumps. And when the strings (in unison with the french horns) come in at about the 2:55 mark with the secondary theme it's goosebumps again. It's famous passages like these that make this one of the most popular works of the 20th century.

4) This is just one man's opinion, but were the woodwinds having an off day when this symphony was recorded? They sound muddy playing many of their runs, they're not playing in unison all that well, and the clarinets sound shrill. The muddiness was most obvious (to me at least) in Jupiter. They have some tough parts here, I'll grant that.

5) You have to listen really closely to hear this but, in this Chicago Symphony recording, at about the 4:42 mark in Jupiter (right when the english horn comes in for a three or four bar solo), you can hear somebody's chair creaking in the left speaker. I'd give anything to be able to not notice these things.

6) Because Jupiter and Mars always seem to get a disproportionate amount of the attention from listeners, I encourage you to pay some extra attention to some of the less-commonly known movements. Uranus (I can't help but laugh every time I write that) is a surprisingly fun and rollicking movement, Saturn is gripping and driving, and Neptune (with its creepy women's choir accompaniment) is ghoulish and eerie. Every one of these movements has something truly interesting to offer.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mahler: Symphony #2 "Resurrection"

If you love Mahler for his larger than life, supersized symphonic productions, this symphony is for you.
Claudio Abbado and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony #2 "Resurrection"
Deutsche Grammophon, 1994

The Second Symphony contains everything, and I mean everything, in Mahler's arsenal. Powerful emotion, life and death themes, lush melodies, ripping brass parts, melodrama, pianissimo to fortissimissimo dynamic ranges, choral arrangements (in German no less), even extra parts for a sizable off-stage orchestra. They're all here in this nearly 90-minute long symphony.

But let me warn you, listening to this symphony can be a shocking experience. At times it leaps from repose to climax with little warning or seeming logic. Mahler takes you from emotional valleys to sudden emotional peaks, from straight instrumental music to a consonant-laden German contralto solo, from lush woodwind melodies to deafening brass parts.

One of the things I struggled with, when listening to this symphony for the first time, was trying to be engaged by the symphony without being stunned into submission. I was so often in a state of surprise that it was difficult remaining engrossed in the music. The transition from the end of the 4th movement to the beginning of the 5th and final movement is a typical example: Mahler lulls you gently and serenely to sleep--and then blows your eardrums halfway into your brain with the first note of the final movement.

This is a blessing, however; it simply means that I'm going to have to listen to this symphony a few more times to really get my arms around it.

A handful of listener notes for Mahler's Second Symphony:
1) The dramatic (or maybe better said: melodramatic) first movement, which represents the funeral march, was written in 1888. Mahler then put the work down for some five years before returning to it.

2) How about all of the stray coughs from the audience throughout the recording? They're particularly noticeable at the very beginning of the 3rd movement. It reminds me why I get so annoyed when I'm at a live symphony, and it helps explain why there aren't that many live classical music recordings made. Suck on a damn cough drop!

3) The 3rd movement might remind you of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

4) If you ever wanted to hear conclusive proof that Mahler never played the trumpet, you'll hear it about 10 minutes into the 5th movement. Mahler writes a high B (I think--at least that's what it sounds like) that starts off fortissimo and fades away to pianissimo. The problem is, he has two trumpets playing it in unison. Anyone who actually played a trumpet would know better than to score something like that. Even skilled trumpet players will struggle to nail a note like that--and even the best trumpet players won't be to do it together and stay in tune with each other. It's too hard a note to control.

5) Remember my comment about how you need to keep your finger on the volume dial whenever you're listening to a Mahler symphony? This symphony is yet another example; it goes from inaudible to ear-scorchingly loud. Many times I felt my hair blowing back like in the old Memorex commercial.

6) This Deutsche Grammophon CD set breaks up the symphony into two discs, which in my opinion is total crap. There's no reason, other than charging me extra for the recording, everything can't be put onto one disc.

7) Finally, think about the economics of a putting on a performance of Mahler's Second. All of Mahler symphonies require extra musicians (usually double the typical number of woodwinds, beefed up string sections, what sounds like at least six trumpets and probably as many french horns and trombones, etc). Moreover, this symphony requires still more musicians for the "offstage orchestra" in the 5th movement. On top of that you've got two solo singers and an entire choir. Heck, if you're going to hire all those extra musicians, you might as well put on an opera. Helps explain why this symphony isn't performed live all that often. A shame.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

How to Start Your Own Classical Music Collection

I'm often asked by people who are new to classical music for a list of CDs or key symphonies that I think are the best choices to start off a new classical music collection. What are ideal symphonies or works that can help you get started getting to know classical music?

Today I'm going to attempt to answer this question, and I'll provide you with a brief list of works that can form the foundation of a great collection of important classical music.

Keep in mind that whenever one reviews any type of list like this, invariably one can complain that a given work was left off the list ("where's Chopin? or Mahler?"), or even that some work was left on the list ("ugh, Beethoven's 5th again?").

This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive. It is merely a starting point for the novice listener. If you purchase recordings of these works and listen to each and every one of them, you'll have a great head start on your journey towards getting to know classical music as a genre.

Where applicable, I've included links to other posts on 101 Classical Music CDs--if you'd like to read more about that particular work, follow the link to do so. In addition, I've included links to Amazon at the bottom of this post where you can buy high-quality recordings of these works.* Let's begin:

1) Mozart: Symphonies 40 and 41
These two symphonies are widely thought to be Mozart's very best. And you can usually find them both on the same CD. A close second choice in my view: Symphonies 38 and 39.

2) Bach: The Six Brandenburg Concertos, or Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor
The Brandenburg Concertos are unparalleled works of the Baroque era. And the Violin Concerto in A minor is stately, somber and stunningly beautiful.

3) Beethoven: Fifth Symphony, Third Symphony and Seventh Symphony
There is no such thing as a bad Beethoven symphony--each one is a masterpiece. However, for some reason, the odd-numbered symphonies tend to resonate more with beginners.

4) Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Listen to this work intently, all the way though, and tell me it doesn't bring you to tears.

5) Brahms: Second Symphony, Fourth Symphony
Although he was long afraid of the responsibility of composing a symphony (in part because of Beethoven's long shadow), these two symphonies contain a beauty and a depth of feeling that will stand up against any other composer in history.

6) Haydn: any of the London Symphonies
Choose any of the twelve symphonies (#93 to #104) that Haydn wrote between the years 1791-1795, during which he made two extended visits to London. They are widely seen as his greatest works, written during a particularly fruitful period of his life--both economically and creatively.

There you have it--go on out and get started building your classical music collection! Again, let me reiterate that this list is in no way exhaustive. It's merely a solid starting point for you to begin your journey through this amazing and multifaceted genre of music. I expect to return to this theme and I'll bring you more suggested "listening lists" in the future.

Finally, let me close this post with a few words of encouragement. You don't need a great ear, a great musical memory, or any sort of highbrow taste in music to appreciate each and every one of these classics (although I would suggest not bothering to read any of the CD liner notes if you can help it). Remember, these symphonic works were the popular music of their era, and the Beethovens, Mozarts and Haydns were the proverbial rock stars of their time. Their music is extremely accessible to everyone. Go for it!

* Full disclosure: if you enter Amazon via a link on my blog and buy something, I'll get a small commission on that purchase. Please think of it as my "tip jar"--and thanks so much to those readers out there who support me!

Amazon Links:
Mozart Symphony #40, #41
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Bach: Violin Concertos
Beethoven, All Nine Symphonies
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Brahms Symphony #2
Brahms Symphony #4
Brahms, All Four Symphonies
Haydn: London Symphonies, Vol. 1
Haydn: London Symphonies, Vol. 2

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: This Disc is Pathetique!

I can't help but laugh when I see this CD, because each time I pull it from my shelf I always say to myself, "this disc is pathetic!"

But of course that's not true. This disc contains two classical music's most beautiful works.
Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata #8 in C minor "Pathetique"
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony #6 "Pathetique"
Teldec, 1998
However, beyond their similar names, there is next to no similarity between these two works--one of which is a sonata for unaccompanied piano, and the other a symphony. Beethoven's piano sonatas are practically a genre unto themselves, and some of them can be difficult at first for for new classical music listeners to appreciate (this was certainly true for me). We'll tackle additional Beethoven piano sonatas in the coming months.

In any event, these two preposterously disparate works supposedly fit together because they both embody the concept of pathos. Not pathos in the modern, pejorative sense of excessive, over-the-top emotion (which the word bathos would more accurately describe), but in the sense of profound and genuine suffering, usually in living out one's fate or destiny.

But let's face up to the real reason these two works were combined on a single disc: marketing. This kind of kitschy, pseudo-eclectic combination is dreamed up in marketing departments, not in the minds of symphony conductors. But as long as it spreads the gospel of classical music, I'm okay with it.

And of course a key liability of a disc like this, mainly because it contains work from two composers whose names begin with different letters of the alphabet, is that it becomes impossible to organize your CD collection. In your alphabetized shelf of CDs, do you put this under Beethoven? Under Tchaikovsky? Under P for Pathetic? This is why I tend to stick to one-composer CDs, or at least compendium recordings of composers who share the same first letter of their last names.

Some brief listener notes:
1) Beethoven apparently prided himself on the technical demands involved in playing his piano sonatas. Even as a non-piano player I can tell that this guy Barenboim really has to work it.

2) The second movement of the piano sonata should sound very familiar. Probably the second most familiar behind the opening movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (Sonata #14).

3) One commenter in this blog amusingly said that Beethoven wrote his symphonies as if his amplifiers were turned up to 11. Beethoven's piano sonatas are more modest in scale and quite a bit less overcharged.

4) One listen to almost any work by Tchaikovsky and you can see why brass players universally love performing his music. Really good parts for everybody, from tuba to trumpet. That's why it's a particular pleasure to hear the giants of the Chicago Symphony play a piece like this. The principal trumpet could stand to lay off the vibrato though.

5) Notice the unusual meter of the second movement. It seems at first like a 3/4 time waltz, which is a typical meter for middle movements of a symphony, but it's actually in 5/4 time. Tchaikovsky was always throwing away the rulebook.

6) What a rollicking third movement! Not much pathos there. But just wait until the fourth movement--you'll get your pathos then, especially at the very end.