Music for a Weary World

Let’s face it, the world is a scary place right now. Countless public places—schools, theme parks, theaters, churches—have shut their doors. The economy teeters dangerously on the brink of collapse. People are panic buying everything from canned goods to hand sanitizer. (If you are one of those people panic buying toilet paper, stop it!!) The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted billions of lives and spurred a persistent sense of dread, thanks in no small part to the endless deluge of news and information (and misinformation) on TV and social media.

The classical music world has also been deeply affected by this pandemic. Organizations around the globe have canceled concerts, operas, tours, festivals, and other events, many of which took years to plan. However, there are glimmers of hope and generosity everywhere. Some orchestras and opera houses are rebroadcasting recent performances (Seattle Symphony, Metropolitan Opera). Others have performed concerts to empty halls, live-streaming them on social media or other platforms (Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic). To top it all off, the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free, 30-day access to its incredible Digital Concert Hall. (Check it out—it’s 100% worth it.) It’s clear that classical music—indeed, music as a whole—will continue to be a source of life, comfort, and unity through these uncertain times. Maybe this (hopefully) short void of live music will even inspire new audiences and spark a revitalization of the art form, coaxing it from its still all-too-stuffy confines and into a larger world. Wishful thinking perhaps, but who knows?

To help combat the anxieties of this pandemic, I have curated a 5-hour (!) Spotify playlist filled with some of my favorite choral works, chamber pieces, concerto movements, and more. Though I am a staunch believer that classical music is so much more than just “nice chill-out music,” this is music that, to me, exudes peace, composure, and reverence (with a few lighter selections thrown in for good measure). May this be a small, but welcome antidote for our crazy world, and may we come out of this a little stronger, a little kinder, and a little more grateful than before.

Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)

This is the third installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Programming (Diversity):

Ah, the classics… Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. Names that appear on countless concert programs year after year. Names that fill “best of” lists and those cheesy classical compilation albums. Names that pretty much any person would recognize, whether they are familiar with classical music or not. Names that have stood the test of time.

However, as wonderful as these composers and their music are, something is missing. Where are the women composers? Where are the non-white composers? Where are the living composers?

One burgeoning issue that classical organizations are now facing regards the subject of repertoire and programming. Each year, when orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, there is an alarming focus on the same dead, white (mostly European), and male composers. Little space, if any at all, is left for variety—namely new works and/or works by minorities. (This post focuses on the latter area. The first—the issue of new music—will be the subject of the next installment.)

As such, the following question has become more pertinent than ever in this day and age:

How can orchestras better reflect the diversity of our modern world?

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The canon, not the cannon!

The notion of the classical music canon is mostly to blame for this phenomenon. Similar to other forms of art such as painting, literature, and film, the classical canon consists of what are considered to be the “greatest” pieces of music ever written—ones that are time-tested and deemed worthy of being heard over and over again. However, this canon is naturally restricting. Let me explain why.

Now, the classical canon didn’t always exist. Pre-1800s, most concert audiences wanted to hear the newest pieces from the hottest composers. (Haydn’s visit to London is a perfect example of this—people would often flock to concerts that featured his latest symphony.) As the Romantic era got underway, though, concertgoers gradually became less interested in the new and innovative and turned their attention to the works of past “masters”—figures such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart—who, by this point, had all been long dead. Beethoven, whose music had received mixed reception during his lifetime, was particularly lauded and over time, he became the stoic figurehead of Western art music. Furthermore, the concert hall was no longer a place for mere entertainment—the music heard within its walls needed to be serious, contemplative, and morally uplifting.

Continue reading “Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)”

Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes

This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.

Program Notes:

After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.

However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.

So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.

Continue reading “Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes”