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 list.