NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
As the editor of the Culture department at The New York Times, Gilbert Cruz relies on critics, reporters and editors in every field of the arts for their expertise. Now were bringing his personal questions and our writers answers to you. Currently on his mind: his constant struggle with how to learn more about everything that Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic, writes about.
Gilbert asks: Im very open when it comes to my lack of knowledge about classical music and opera. And through conversations over the years, youve been gracious enough to try to explain to me that I shouldnt feel overwhelmed by this. Im also a fan of working through groups of works all of a pop artists albums, all the movies from a particular director, et cetera. Walk me through how I (or someone else) might want to start doing this when it comes to classical music.
Anthony answers: If someone has a natural inclination to go through a body of works, classical music certainly invites that approach. Take Beethovens nine symphonies: There they are, nine numbered scores spanning nearly 25 years of his adult life. Of course it can be fascinating to go through them in order. Or Brahms four, or Sibelius seven.
Yet too often, Ive found, newcomers to classical music feel they have to take a music survey class before they can get certain pieces or composers. My only caution would be to avoid that mindset and just go on an immersive exploration. My general preference is for programs where, say, Beethovens amazing Seventh Symphony is performed alongside contemporary scores, including, ideally, a new piece by a young composer who is indebted to Beethoven but unintimidated by the big guy and eager to share the stage with him.
Also, Id recommend exploring whole groups of pieces if possible through attending live concerts (when they return, of course). For example, last February, over 12 days at Alice Tully Hall, the Danish String Quartet played Beethovens 16 quartets in chronological order, on six programs. Now that was an exhilarating way to plunge into those incredible pieces. The series was one of the last momentous classical music events in New York before everything stopped in mid-March.
Gilbert asks: I want to ask you about this extended absence of live music, but first please pair me a few contemporary scores with Beethovens Seventh Symphony!
Tony answers: Well, back in 2002 at Carnegie Hall Christoph von Dohnanyi led the Cleveland Orchestra in a program that offered Wolfgang Rihms Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (2000). That piece, written in a pungently modernist musical language, unfolded as a long, uninterrupted, strangely riveting but very elusive single movement.
Then, after intermission, came Beethovens Seventh Symphony. Maybe because the Rihm was still in my ears, the slow, extended introduction to the first movement seemed unusually elusive, almost evasive. Beethoven is toying with us here, I realized. I listened thinking: Whats going on? Where is this heading? When does the real first movement start? Im sure thats the way Dohnanyi wanted me to hear it.
When I was a teenager, I heard Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic in Beethovens epic, intrepid Eroica Symphony, followed by Stravinskys still-shocking The Rite of Spring. Hearing those works juxtaposed emphasized the pathbreaking qualities of each score. The Eroica sounded utterly audacious; the Rite seemed elemental and timeless. Beethoven and Stravinsky emerged like fellow radicals.
Gilbert asks: I have to say, hearing you describe those performances makes me miss the grandeur of a concert hall, sort of in the same way I miss the largeness of a movie screen. Part of experiencing art outside my home is the potential to be overwhelmed, and as many speakers as I might have, or as big as my TV might be, it obviously doesnt feel the same. Ive only started to go to see live classical music in earnest in the past three or four years. Youve been doing it for much longer, and I have to imagine the longing is deeper.
You recently wrote a wonderful piece, Notes Toward Reinventing the American Orchestra, which is full of smart suggestions for how classical music organizations might change post-pandemic. What dont you want to change?
Tony answers: Ah, what I dont want to change in classical music, what will never change, Im convinced, is the sheer sensual pleasure, ecstasy even, of being immersed in the sound of a great orchestra, a fine string quartet, a radiant soprano. And to experience that you must experience this art form live.
As a kid, I first got to know countless pieces through recordings. And during the pandemic it often feels like recordings are all we have. But growing up, what finally hooked me on classical music was hearing the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in Beethovens mighty Emperor Concerto; and having a standing-room ticket as a young teenager to hear the celebrated soprano Renata Tebaldi, with her sumptuous voice, as Desdemona in Verdis Otello at the Metropolitan Opera; or, a little later, hearing Leontyne Prices soft, sustained high notes in Aida soar upward and surround me in a balcony seat at the Met. I only vaguely knew what these operas were about. I didnt care.
And what Im saying goes for more intimate music, too. Only when you hear a terrific string quartet performing works by Haydn, Shostakovich or Bartok in a hall that seats just a few hundred do you really understand what makes chamber music so overwhelming. But it makes a huge difference to hear a symphony, whether by Mozart or Messiaen, in a lively, inviting concert hall.
Gilbert asks: Youve proven this to me several times over the past three years Im thinking of the time you took me to hear The Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall and I walked out gobsmacked. (I know, such a rookie.) Or the time I found my eyes welling up at the end of Samuel Barbers Knoxville, Summer of 1915 at David Geffen Hall. I just dont think I would have felt those same emotions listening to those pieces at home.
But there is something I really do want to listen to at home, and it was my initial reason for wanting to have this exchange with you. In reading your wonderfully personal piece from a few weeks ago about the pianist Peter Serkin, you mention his recording of Bachs Goldberg Variations. And Ive heard about the Goldberg Variations hundreds of times, but Ive never actually heard them. (I know, such a rookie!) Help a colleague out?
Tony answers: The sheer vitality and ingeniousness inventiveness of Bachs music in the Goldberg Variations moment to moment, section to section surely accounts for the enduring popularity of this monumental work. But the overall structure of the composition is also captivating even to listeners who may not consciously perceive it. In a typical theme and variations form, a theme is heard straight through and then followed by a series of variations that spin off, play with, tweak or elaborate upon it.
Mozart wrote a playful set of piano variations on the tune known today as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The Goldberg Variations is more unusual: The theme is a lovely, mellow Aria, as Bach calls it. Its followed by a set of 30 variations. Its not really the arias melody, as such, thats put through variations; its the bass line and the series (or progression) of harmonies (the chords) suggested by the bass line that Bach plays around with in each variation.
So the allure of the piece, I think, is that the individual variations sound strikingly fresh and boldly contrasted, yet they all seem to go together, to emanate from the same place. Theres another element to it in that every third variation is written as a specific kind of canon, a strict contrapuntal form thats like whats commonly called a round (think Row, Row, Row Your Boat).
But you can be a huge Goldberg Variations fan without really understanding the technique involved. Id suggest listening carefully to the opening aria a few times, concentrating on the bass line in the piano. Then I bet youll sense how the sequence of bass notes and harmonies permeates the subsequent variations, even when the music goes through exciting contrasts. And, yes, the young Peter Serkin is a wonderful guide.
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