Gift list: what does a person who “likes classical music” really like?
Tis the season to think of gifts. A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to put together a list of new CDs for another friend, a woman in her 30s whom I’ve never met who describes herself as “liking classical music,” and listens to it a lot -- and not to pop music -- on the radio.
What an easy task. I have literally hundreds of new CDs sitting on and around my desk (I wish this were an exaggeration), all of them falling under the rubric of “classical music.” It’s a trove of new releases of all descriptions, and it should make any classical-music lover’s mouth water.
But when I started to think about it, it got less easy. Because saying “I like classical music” can be (as I’ve said before) as much a sociological statement as an aesthetic one. The music you like is tied up with your identity, and the 30-year-old who says “I like classical music, and not pop/rock,” is signaling that she doesn’t run with the crowd. But what exactly is she saying? And what music would she actually like?
This person seems to me to be telegraphing the idea that indie rock, for instance, is not her thing. So while I usually think of a lot of genre-busting contemporary classical as inherently interesting to a younger (read: under 50. Ha) listener, I’m not sure this person would like itsnotyouitsme, or Claire Chase, or never-before-released recordings that Philip Glass made with the band The Raybeats in the 1980s. (Note that this post gives me a chance to work in mentions of some of the six gazillion CDs I am and/or want to be listening to.)
Opera, of course, is a genre unto itself. I always stick at least one opera or aria album into gift boxes, but I well realize that plenty of self-defined classical music lovers are not opera lovers, and vice versa. If I were playing it safe, I’d offer art songs, instead: maybe Jake Heggie’s “Here/After,” or, pushing the envelope, “Soldier Songs” by David T. Little. Or would a “classical music lover” prefer the big flavors du jour, such as Jonas Kaufmann or Anna Netrebko?
Then again, not every classical music lover loves big symphonic works. I realized that I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that my unknown music lover wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to Gergiev’s Szymanowski cycle with the LSO, or Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Orchestra continuing their Shostakovich cycle with 4th Symphony; though I thought she might like Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony doing Beethoven’s 2nd. The jury is out, too, on solo piano music: Valentina Lisitsa? Daniil Trifonov? Jeremy Denk?
What I realized, when I really thought about it, was that I assumed that the tastes of someone who mainly listened to music on classical radio stations would run to Bach cello suites, Vivaldi violin concertos, Anonymous 4, and Mozart. There’s nothing wrong with those tastes, but I suspect there’s something wrong with those assumptions -- which are partly based on a sense that classical radio doesn’t generally represent the cutting edge of what’s happening in the field. (One of the main topics about which readers write me is the perceived weakness of classical radio stations.) But that’s unfair to a lot of stations that are doing interesting work.
I am now deeply curious to hear what other people think. So I have two questions for you. One: when a 30-something says her main listening is classical music on the radio, what kinds of music do you think she likes? And two: what three CDs released in the past calendar year would you recommend she listen to?
At the very least, we can come up with a killer crowdsourced gift firstname.lastname@example.org
“War Requiem:” the conversation continues
It’s the month of War Requiem in Washington, where two major organizations feted Benjamin Britten’s centenary with a piece that some have called his magnum opus. I had a couple of chances to talk about the piece in the Washington Post, first in a feature for the Sunday Arts section, and then in my review of the Washington Chorus performance a couple of days later (in which I tried not to repeat the earlier story, forgetting that a number of readers would not have seen the earlier story). So when it came time to review the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance, I was casting about for ways to spare readers hearing me yet again on the same subject, and ways I could avoid repeating myself. My husband, Greg Sandow, is a respected critic, composer and consultant who’s been writing about music in major publications for years, and since he and I have quite different takes on the piece, we had the idea of writing a joint review as a point-counterpoint debate.
To me, this approach is a tangible reminder of how greatly reviews are enhanced by the presence of different points of view. I learn a lot from people who have other opinions, even if they don’t change my mind. And we would both welcome more of them. We would love to hear your thoughts on the War Requiem: the piece itself, the performances in the Washington area, or various recordings and other encounters you’ve had over the years. Post away. We’ll be checking back in through the week and adding to this post with additions and comments of our own.
Above: A complete 1992 performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by John Eliot Gardiner at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. We’d like to hear your thoughts about the piece.
Edited to add: Greg Sandow has added a few thoughts about the Washington Chorus performance, and other comments, in the Comments thread below. Other commenters have weighed in with their own memories and experiences, and in response to one mention of the NSO performance under Rostropovich, I added the Paul Hume review from the Washington Post from 1979.
We’ve also appreciated hearing directly from many of you. One letter, in particular, deserves to be seen in full; it’s one of my favorite readers’ letters ever. I reproduce it below, without further comment.Continue reading this post »
A lost “Lost Childhood.”
In 2005, the opera “Lost Childhood” had a read-through, with singers and piano, through American Opera Projects in New York City. Like many operas these days, it’s based on a true story. It depicts a conversation between a character named Judah, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, inspired by the New York-based psychiatrist Yehuda Nir (who wrote a memoir called “The Lost Childhood”), and a character named Manfred, a German child of Nazi sympathizers, inspired by Richard Wagner’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner. The work was intense, full of conversation -- a “New York Times” review questioned whether opera was the best medium for the subject -- and still had to be orchestrated. In a recent phone interview Charles Jarden, the head of American Opera Projects, said that the composer, Janice Hamer, promised to get back to him when she had completed the orchestration -- and that she didn’t show up until almost seven years later, when she lined up a concert performance of the opera with the National Philharmonic, at Strathmore, this past weekend.
The Strathmore performance, conducted by Piotr Gajewski and starring Michael Hendrick and Christopher Trakas as Judah and Manfred, took place on Saturday night, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass [corrected],” when Nazis systematically attacked Jewish-owned businesses and buildings throughout German and Austria. Gottfried Wagner himself was in attendance.[Correction: A last-minute visa problem prevented Gottfried Wagner from attending.] So were a number of critics, including one from the Washington Post (which covered the event in an advance piece on the blog “On Faith”). When that critic arrived at the hall and opened the program, however, he discovered that he had personal connections to several members of the cast -- which, according to the standards of journalistic objectivity, meant that he couldn’t write about the performance.
Above: A news broadcast about the opera “Lost Childhood,” performed at Strathmore this weekend, includes excerpts of Janice Hamer’s score.Continue reading this post »
Review roundup: Shao, Bailey impress on cello; Kronos plays new Philip Glass quartet; and more
It’s time for another roundup of recent classical music reviews.
I attended Yuja Wang’s recital at Strathmore last week and found the playing brilliant but oddly distanced; I later heard third-hand that she may actually have been indisposed, in which case my take should shift from “what’s the matter with her?” to “who can actually play that well when they’re sick?”
Robert Battey attended an uneven but sometimes exhilerating performance by the Cuarteto Casals at the Library of Congress; was impressed by Chris Thile playing, among other things, Bach on the mandolin at Strathmore; and, last night, heard Kristjan Jarvi lead the NSO with what I might call modified rapture. (In between all that, he himself performed the Lalo cello concerto in d minor with the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic.)
Speaking of cellists: Joan Reinthaler appreciated Zuill Bailey’s pianissimos, but was disappointed with the Strathmore acoustic, in his Schumann recital there with Navah Perlman. (This was Bailey’s second DC recital this calendar year; in addition, he also appeared later the same evening with the National Philharmonic.)
And yet more cellists: Sophie Shao appeared at the Phillips Collection with the pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute in a recital that deeply impressed Stephen Brookes. (Above: the two play the Beethoven fifth sonata in an earlier performance at Curtis.)
To accompany the Byzantium show at the National Gallery, the Cappella Romana offered what Charles T. Downey called “a concert of luminous beauty.”
Finally, Roger Catlin heard the Kronos Quartet give the East Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s sixth quartet — which sounded more traditional, he writes, than the other works on the email@example.com
Child opera singer goes viral, redux
In the popular imagination, opera arias have become a vehicle for all that is moving and beautiful – as long as they’re not sung in an opera house. People who would go to some lengths to avoid attending a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” or “Gianni Schicchi” fall all over themselves at the arias “Nessun dorma” (now an obligatory vehicle for all male singers , and some female ones ) and “O mio babbino caro” (which fulfills the same role for young sopranos ) – when those arias are encountered on the variety stages of shows about the talent pool of various countries. Dissociated from all vestiges of their original meaning or style, these arias have become a meme, a vehicle for a certain kind of popular crossover pseudo-operatic sound .
It happens every so often that one of these singers , singing one of these arias, strikes a chord in the popular imagination and goes viral and becomes beloved of all but a handful of people like me who take on the role of sour-faced purists as we try to explain that the singer in question is doing it all wrong and the aria is capable of communicating so much more when it is sung with real vocal technique and an actual understanding of the words. We “purists” can get quite passionate about this , and many people come away from such diatribes with the idea that we are nasty people who enjoy being mean to little girls – except for those who gleefully pile on and take our arguments even farther, claiming that such performances represent the decline of art, taste, and even civilization. All of this stirs up such a tangle of comment – and comment is, today, a universal measure of success – that some people seem to go out of their way to invoke flashpoint names, like Jackie Evancho , whenever a chance presents itself. (Evancho, incidentally, also burst onto the scene with a performance of “O mio babbino caro” on “America’s Got Talent.” )
Today’s sensation, as the above video attests, is a 9-year-old girl named Amira Willighagen, who on the show Holland’s Got Talent a few days ago sang “O mio babbino caro” with all of the heart and soul a nine-year-old can muster and then some. How can I criticize this performance? I can’t criticize a little girl whose imagination was captivated enough by something about this music, or this song, that she put the energy into learning it. I certainly can’t speculate on the involvement of her parents, though attributing malign motivation to putative stage parents is a common trope when these kinds of prodigy appear. I won’t lecture the child on how she is sure to ruin her voice if she sings in this particular way, because honestly, if she does care enough about singing eventually to pursue voice lessons, she will figure out what she needs to do, and if she doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter.Continue reading this post »