The other day FK of Classical Review posed the question: “Would more people get ‘into’ classical music by hearing it first on CD or in a concert hall?”
I’m assuming the question is about getting into classical music generally, as opposed to getting into specific musical works. And since it’s a hypothetical question as it stands, I’m going to turn it into something more personal if not necessarily more scientific:
What got you “into” classical music?
Was it hearing the music on recordings, was it hearing the music in the concert hall, was it hearing the music used in some incidental way (soundtracks, advertisements…), or was it something else?
This post is my answer. You’re invited to share a response in the comments, or to write your own blog post and leave a link here. (Does that make it a meme? Maybe.)
I got into classical music as a kid, when I was too young to be taken to formal concerts, but not too young to ask for my favourite records to be put on.
The family record collection was probably 75 per cent musical theatre and 25 per cent classical (orchestral) music. So strictly speaking, the musical genre that I first got “into” was musical theatre and I got into that solely via recordings, since I was in late primary school before I saw any musicals on the stage. (By contrast I’ve never been interested in recordings of opera and my interest in that genre is solely from performances.)
Anyhow, classical music. Recordings first. No prepping or priming or earnest guidance from my parents. The music was there simply to be listened to and enjoyed. I didn't particularly identify what I was listening to as “classical” music. It was all just music, from Scheherazade to Eagle Rock. I knew I preferred the Rimsky-Korsakov by a long shot, but I wasn’t making any particular genre distinctions with the exception of one: singing and no-singing.
But recordings were only part of the picture. There was a piano in the house, my big sister was taking lessons, and at some point I began fooling around, trying to work out notation with the aid of one of those paper charts that sit at the back of the keyboard and improvising what I called “fairy music”. This was probably maddening, formal lessons were in order!
But there’s more, and if this next factor wasn’t the real reason I got “into” classical music, it certainly has influenced my taste in the long term. It’s dance, specifically ballet. I first heard live orchestral music not in a concert hall but in the theatre, in a production of Giselle that I saw when I was about 6 or 7. The first accomplished pianist I heard play regularly was the ballet school accompanist. The music I most liked to listen to, I realise now, was often ballet music or at least well-suited to dance. My favourite mode of “listening” involved moving. There were plenty of concert works I heard for the first time in the theatre, for example Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (which I loved, aged 9) and Webern Opus 5 (which I hated, aged 14). And I grew up revelling in the colour and buoyancy of Russian and French music and the elegant rhythms and phrases of baroque music.
All in all, it was a gradual immersion that began at a very young age, first with recordings and then through the theatre. My attraction to classical concerts is really part of a bigger love for live performance generally, and it seems to have emerged as much from a childhood of going to plays and ballets as from the music itself.
To my shame, the memory of my earliest classical concerts is really hazy. There was my first studio concert, in which I played some little beginner piece in the midst of a program of lieder and advanced repertoire (the other students were all much older and mostly singers). My teacher also conducted the Western Sinfonia, and I recall going to a couple of those concerts, probably when I was in primary school. Around the same time there was the SSO concert in the Sydney Town Hall to which I was taken in fervent anticipation of seeing and hearing a harp. There was a harp, but not as soloist; I was very disappointed.
The first orchestral concert that I really remember was the SSO, in the Opera House, with Jean-Pierre Rampal as soloist. I was at least 12, because I’d begun learning flute. Mum and I set off with the primary goal of hearing Rampal play Mozart. I remember the concert so vividly because I emerged from it having lost all interest in Rampal, and Mozart – I had just heard Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Woah! Now that was exciting stuff. But by that time I was well and truly “into” classical music, I knew that was its name, and I also knew that I belonged to a nerdy little minority. And I didn’t care because I was in love.
Others are way more qualified to write about opera than I am, but I want to enthuse a little. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the scenario: someone who’d done a half-show at the previous OA production he attended raved to me about Peter Grimes. Enthusiastic reports came from one, two, three other trusted sources. So I knew I had to go, especially since I still bear the bruises from kicking myself for missing Billy Budd. The final prod came in the form of an attractive rush price. Now there were no “barriers”, as the marketing bods would say. It turned out to be one of those nights where I saw a lot of familiar faces. Heaps of industry acquaintances and colleagues, performers, various “important people”, the odd composer. This was good to see: an audience full (literally full) of the kind of people whose opinions are likely to hold sway.
I’d not seen this opera or listened to it in its entirety before. Like many orchestrally biased music-lovers, my appreciation is for the Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes. But I’m not sure I’ve seen any Opera Australia production that I’ve liked better, has been better sung and played, or made more musical and dramatic sense.
The storm-painted curtain opens on a period piece, a town hall in all its sturdy detail, an interior not from the early 19th century but c.1940. It’s Britten’s era, in other words, not Crabbe’s, and Britten’s sympathies emerge unhindered. The hall becomes the set for the whole opera, shifting easily from indoor to outdoor communal spaces with just the subtlest of variations (some of them carried out by possibly the most illustrious stage-hand ever: Peter Carroll as the silent Dr Crabbe). There are basically no private spaces in this opera, barring one, which I’ll get to.
The set conveyed no real sense of the sea, and you could argue that this is a (minor) weakness when the music so overpoweringly redolent of the sea. But there’s reason in the madness, I think. First, the music needs very little help; its evocations are even more powerful for not being mirrored in any literal or naturalistic attempt to represent the sea or the shore. Second, and more important, it allows us to step back slightly from the plot and see the theme: this is an opera that ultimately is about community, public opinion, and gathering together vs social isolation and rejection. I think we can be sympathetic to Britten’s Grimes in a way that it’s nearly impossible to feel for the Crabbe Grimes because he’s recast as the dreamer and an outcast, battling futilely against an implacable, tight-knit community. Crabbe, on the other hand, portrays a Grimes whose sole motivation seems to be the desire to exert power over a weaker character. You don’t go all weepy when he goes mad with despair. You do when Stuart Skelton does.
The one truly private space is Grimes’s hut, in Act II. Here Neil Armfield proved that less is more. There’s an interlude. Dr Crabbe methodically clears the stage, then moves to the curtained platform at the rear of the hall and beckons it forward. And the whole wall moves, slowly, inexorably to the front of the stage proper. It’s the simplest thing, really, but the effect was oppressive and somehow damning. Shudder.
From Britten himself came tiny discoveries and exquisite pleasures. Some of the text setting in Widow Sedley’s part is astonishingly effective, with such striking colours in the accompaniment. Her amateur sleuthing and predictions of doom are clearly meant to be a pain in the proverbial, but I didn’t want it to stop.
There was no faulting the cast: Skelton as Grimes; Peter Coleman-Wright as Balstrode; Susan Gritton as the one character I can’t quite understand, Ellen Orford; some serious-looking casting in the supporting roles and an adorable pair of “Nieces”. Aside from the mad scene (or the scene in which the orchestra switches off its sconces and Grimes’s life totally falls apart), Skelton had me wowed with his amazing pianissimos. At one point he was singing so softly while projecting so unerringly, that, as was commented to me, it was as if he was singing from offstage. And then to bloom from that into a perfectly shaped crescendo. Stunning. Is there nothing he can’t do? But always in the service of the music. The same is to be said for Coleman-Wright.
I’m not sure how to sum this one up, because everything seemed so right and so wonderful and so moving. Let’s just say it was, without hesitation or question, a “stay to the end” evening at the Opera House. And that’s high praise.
There’s an interesting syndrome going around right now: it seems to be a circulatory problem as it results in cold feet, which in turn leads to the late changing of concert promotional titles. So tonight I heard “The Girl with the Golden Flute”, according to the subs brochure and the program book, or “Tchaikovsky Serenade”, going by the posters and recent advertising (not to mention the tumultuous applause this work received).
Alternatively, it could have been called The Girl with the Purple Frock, the said frock being a simple but elegantly shaped number in a lovely shade of royal purple. More’s the pity then that its wearer felt the need to keep tugging at the top of the bodice as if she feared it would fall down. I’m sure Chanel said something about how you should be able to put on your clothes, look in the mirror and then forget all about them. Goes double for stage wear.
While I’m on a clothing theme, the orchestra was decked out in new outfits which threaten to be selectively rather than universally flattering. I’m unconvinced about the capri pants for the women (exposed ankles work only on long and slender limbs), and there’s no agreement on exactly where on the leg the hem of the overdress should hit: it seems a bit too short on the taller women, oddly long on the shorter women. The men’s overshirts haven’t changed much that I could see, but are possibly more tailored – a good thing.
This program had always included an element of uncertainty: the idea was that in each concert you’d hear either the Vine flute concerto or one by Serebrier, together with another concerto by Izarra. Somewhere along the way Izarra was dropped from the concerts altogether and so we got both Vine and Serebrier. Or so it seemed.
A flute-playing friend who knows the Vine told me at interval that we hadn’t heard the whole piece, only (I think this was it) the third movement preceded by a portion of the second. The reference to structure in the SMH review suggested that the whole concerto had been performed on the Saturday at least. So maybe there was growing concern about the program being too long because, as so often happens with commissions, the new work by Peteris Vasks had turned out to be 25 minutes instead of the expected 10. Not that I was complaining on that point, Vasks being a favourite of mine and the music being really effective. (Now his is a flute concerto I’d like to play.)
When, after interval, the soloist came on with just her golden flute in hand, I began to have doubts about the Serebrier, which apparently features the alto flute in its fourth movement tango. It’s even called “Flute Concerto with Tango”; I’m guessing what we heard was just the Flute Concerto. And as the program annotator pointed out to me later, this made a nonsense of at least some of what had been published about the piece.
Left unexplained, discrepancies between program book and performance always bother me. And that’s not just a personal aversion to “mistakes”. If someone is genuinely trying to use the program as a navigational guide then they are either going to be misled or left confused if what they read doesn’t match what they’re hearing. I don’t think it’s too much for performers to announce from the stage (especially when they’re good at it) where changes have been made, perhaps even why, but at least what.
There was a little encore for solo flute. Apparently it was from Sweden. The composer’s name (spoken over laughter) sounded a little like Alfvén, the music not so much. In its modal qualities it reminded me more of those recorder variations that Jakob van Eyck wrote to entertain people strolling in the Utrecht cemetery (a popular pastime in the 16th century), only a whole lot more showy. The applause only confirmed that we’ve lost none of the pleasure we instinctively feel in admiring a virtuoso performance. Faster, Higher, Louder – it works for music too.
But no surprises for guessing that everyone was going to love the Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings best of all. It’s gorgeous, adorable music – made to be loved. The performance itself had an uncommon vigour that was instantly appealing. You could see (literally) some of the things that make a standing chamber orchestra so very attractive to an audience: that moment in the Elegie when four first violins angled their bodies in towards each other for a perfect, muted unison giving a visual complement to the aural effect; or when individual musicians leant across the ensemble, sharing melodies with counterparts in other sections. This stuff isn’t just for show, but it’s part of what makes a performance one. And when that happens you don’t really mind what name they give it.
There are critics who’ve been known to scurry out of a concert hall before the encores, lest this – and the audience response – somehow influence their assessment. Or the rationale might be that only the formal, planned portion of the concert is worthy of review. Others stick around, but might choose to make no mention of the encores.
That’s wrong, I think. Like them or not, encores are a part of the performance and invariably they are a planned element in the concert, even if they’re not publicised as such.
More important: encores can be terribly revealing – in choice and interpretation.
Orchestral encores are a rare treat in Sydney, and usually they are a treat. But last week I heard a couple that were no treat at all, despite being well chosen. In both cases, if I’d been assigning “points”, the concert’s score would have been lowered considerably by the encores, much in the way that a perfect 10 on the beam is squandered when the gymnast fails to stick her landing at the end. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to imagine the gymnast sticking her landing but then sticking her tongue out at the judges.
Which is kind of what happened. It almost made me wonder whether there mightn’t be a fundamental antipathy to encores behind it all (and later I heard that this is more or less the case). To which all I can say is, if you dislike them that much, stick to your guns and don’t play them; if you are going to play them, honour the music and the audience.
I’ll have to admit right now to being in a minority. Whether through genuine pleasure or misguided politeness, there were close on 2,500 people heaping up the applause while I and a handful of others sat numb. But what for?
On the first night it was a Brahms Hungarian dance so distorted, so grotesque, you’d swear Dali had gotten at it. Through the centuries – CPE Bach, Chopin, Debussy – we’ve had clear instructions and beautiful models for how a stylish and musical rubato works. You play with tempo on the surface, sure, but without ever losing sight of the underlying pulse; the rhythmic logic is always apparent, the integrity of the music assured. But this performance began with the beat pulled around like taffy, to the point of smearing the pulse altogether. (The score calls for none of this, by the way – there is a pause in the first bar, and shortly after that a three-bar slowing followed by a return to the initial lively(!) tempo, but that’s pretty much the extent of the liberties Brahms expects.)
It’s concert music, I know, but you couldn’t even have imagined dancing to this. It sounded like simple showing off: a demonstration of how far a phenomenal technique and an ensemble of fine musicians will allow you to stretch and contract the beat. Alas, the result had nothing with the composer’s intentions to do. Give me a less impressive technique and the humility of true musicianship any day. And I wish the review had mentioned it, because observations such as this one about the beautiful performance of the opening work – “an overriding strategy to carefully realise the composer’s precisely notated intentions” – were completely contradicted by what went unreported at the end.
Later in the week the pain was short and swift. Perhaps a little too swift: I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard the Trépak from Nutcracker skated quite so quickly. But on arriving home I was reminded that Gergiev’s recording takes it nearly as fast, only he understands that you have to give men (a) time to make those magnificent Cossack jumps, and (b) some downbeats to propel them into the air. This is a Russian dance after all, and it needs some virility. Again, it was all the more disappointing given that the opening work (Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead) had been given a performance that was not only impressively shaped but filled with obvious affection and respect.
Perhaps reviewers should pay more attention to encores and hold them to the same artistic standard as the main program, then presenters, performers (and audiences too) might be less inclined to regard them merely as essential crowd-pleasing fluff.